The University of Chicago plunged in the annual college free speech rankings produced by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), falling from first place to thirteenth within a year. Sean Stevens, FIRE’s director of polling and analytics, told the Thinker that “there is a singular reason” for UChicago’s fall: the school’s controversial refusal to give registered student organization (RSO) status to the campus chapter of Turning Point USA (TPUSA).
UChicago’s TPUSA chapter “was denied recognition for its views under the pretext that it hadn’t shown enough interest and that another similar group had already been recognized,” notes an appendix to FIRE’s 2024 free speech report. “[W]ithout the penalty for denying recognition to a student group,” FIRE’s Stevens informed the Thinker, “UChicago would be ranked #2.”
The president of UChicago’s TPUSA chapter, Christopher Phillips, told the Thinker that he is deeply disappointed by UChicago’s “mistake to deny our club recognition and the subsequent reflection in the FIRE rankings.” “I hope [UChicago] will repair its damaged ranking by approving our group in the coming application cycle, particularly considering the demonstrated commitment and enthusiasm of our members,” Phillips added.
Gerald McSwiggan, UChicago’s associate director for public affairs, informed the Thinker that “the majority of [RSO] applications are typically not approved, with even lower rates for first-time applicants.” Only 38% of the 55 groups that applied for RSO status last year received it, he said, as the process for recognition is “highly competitive.”
TPUSA declares itself to be devoted to “freedom, free markets, and limited government,” and its UChicago chapter presents itself as a home for “UChicago Freedom Fighters.” According to UChicago, RSO status allows clubs to receive student government funding, reserve space in UChicago facilities, post notices on campus, and more.
UChicago Was Forewarned
For several months now, FIRE has challenged UChicago’s nonrecognition of the TPUSA chapter. Sabrina Conza, a program officer for FIRE, wrote to UChicago President Paul Alivisatos in late April, charging that “UChicago’s denial of recognition to TPUSA violates the university’s explicit commitment to free expression and must be reversed.”
According to FIRE’s April letter, the school’s Committee on Recognized Student Organizations (CORSO) rejected the TPUSA chapter’s request for recognition in early January. “On appeal,” the letter continues, “UChicago’s Center of Leadership and Involvement affirmed CORSO’s decision.”
The TPUSA chapter “was encouraged to apply to the Student Engagement Fund [SEF] as a resource for establishing themselves on campus” and “consider applying again for RSO status in the fall,” UChicago’s McSwiggan told the Thinker, adding that the chapter “was awarded funds through the normal SEF process.”
Justifying the nonrecognition of the TPUSA chapter, the chairwoman of CORSO—which is part of the UChicago Undergraduate Student Government—pointed to a lack of “sufficient difference between [TPUSA] and the existing College Republican RSO.” Additionally, CORSO declared that there was no “pressing need” for a TPUSA chapter and that it “lacked the requisite number of members and events to show a . . . ‘compelling sign of the longevity and engagement of an organization,’” FIRE reports.
While both TPUSA and College Republicans “promote conservative causes, their respective missions differ significantly,” FIRE’s letter counters. “TPUSA’s mission is externally focused, aiming to bring speakers to campus, and involves less advocacy on political candidates and political views than does that of the College Republicans.”
For his part, UChicago’s McSwiggan told the Thinker that applicants for RSO status “are advised that differentiating themselves from other groups involves more than having a unique written mission,” noting the importance of “previous engagement with distinct audiences on campus, involvement in organizing events, and creating a depth and breadth of student involvement opportunities.”
UChicago Performs Better in Other Areas
FIRE’s Stevens reported that “UChicago’s performance on the other components was pretty similar to last year’s,” contending that “13 out of 248 is still really good.”
UChicago “did well on administrative support and most of the tolerance components,” Stevens observed. The school took second place for administrative support and third place for tolerating speakers, though it came in nineteenth for tolerating conservative speakers.
Stevens reported that UChicago “didn’t do as well on disruptive conduct (acceptability of illiberal actions to protest a speaker) or on tolerance difference,” noting that “students, while fairly tolerant of allowing controversial conservative speakers on campus compared to most other schools, still heavily favored allowing controversial liberal speakers on campus over conservative ones.”
Indeed, UChicago came in 166th place for “tolerance difference,” indicating that controversial liberal speakers are much more tolerated on campus than controversial conservative ones, and 156th for “disruptive conduct,” meaning that many students are comfortable resorting to yelling and force to shut down on-campus speakers.
Students at UChicago are also not terribly comfortable expressing their own ideas, with the school coming in 94th on that front. UChicago came in 124th place for openness, which measures students “perceived ability to have conversations about difficult topics on campus.”
FIRE’s Scholars Under Fire Database shows that in the 2020s, four UChicago professors “have faced calls for sanction.” In the most recent incident, Rebecca Journey’s “course, ‘The Problem with Whiteness,’ was postponed after a student shared the course catalog on social media.” The administration’s response, however, was to “support the scholar,” and FIRE’s Stevens stressed to the Thinker that “UChicago wasn’t penalized for a Scholars Under Fire entry.”
Citing the Chicago Principles and UChicago Law Professor Tom Ginsburg’s Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression, UChicago’s McSwiggan reiterated that UChicago’s “commitment to freedom of expression is a core value of the University and central to our mission of discovery.”
Phillips, the TPUSA chapter head, told the Thinker that “I look forward to working with the administration to restore and strengthen the school’s commitment to free speech.”