Auburn University is the top school in Alabama when it comes to free speech, according to a report released this week.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), in partnership with College Pulse, released the third annual College Free Speech Rankings, ranking the speech climates of 203 of America's largest and most prestigious campuses in order from top (the University of Chicago) to bottom (Columbia University).

FIRE gave Auburn an "above average" score on free speech that was good enough to be ranked 22nd out of the 203 schools in the study.

FIRE ranks schools' free speech climates based on students' comfort with expressing ideas, tolerance for liberal and conservative speakers, disruptive conduct by students, administrative support and the ease of having open conversations on hot-button cultural issues. Schools were also judged on their administration's support for faculty free speech, the number of faculty sanctioned at the school, how many campus speakers were disinvited and their campus policies for free speech.

The survey was sent to 44,847 college students currently enrolled in four-year degree programs at 208 colleges and universities in the United States.

"It's hard to say, but I talk about things every day where people give you 'the look' for saying stuff," an anonymous Class of 2024 Auburn respondent told FIRE. "Disapproval. I don't care, I still talk about what I want to anyway. In fact, I like to look at things from as many angles as possible. Nevertheless, people sometimes give off that tone. I'll add it's more the atmosphere created by the students and less of the administration that seems to be prohibitive."

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) received an "average" score, ranking 56th of the schools surveyed.

"Honestly this campus is not safe to speak about anything political," said an anonymous Class of 2026 (UAB) respondent surveyed by FIRE.

The University of Alabama came in last amongst the three Alabama universities surveyed, with an "average" score and a ranking of 81.

An anonymous class of 2022 Alabama respondent surveyed said, "Since we're in Alabama, a lot of people here are Republicans, and I feel like I can't talk about some social issues without it being turned into an argument."

Another anonymous class of 2023 Alabama respondent surveyed by FIRE said so-called diversity, equity and inclusion events on campus usually end up with someone getting called racist. 

"Despite the name, they are some of the least inclusive people when it comes to different points of view," the respondent said. "Having a discussion with someone in these groups ends up with them calling someone racist."

FIRE senior research fellow Sean Stevens said in a statement that the fact "that so many students are self-silencing and silencing each other is an indictment of campus culture." 

"How can students develop their distinct voices and ideas in college if they're too afraid to engage with each other?" Stevens asked.

FIRE hopes that prospective college students and their parents will use the rankings to make informed decisions about where to apply, according to a news release.

"The situation for freedom of speech and academic freedom has been in trouble on campus since before FIRE was founded in 1999," said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE CEO, in a statement. "That situation has gotten far worse in the last few years. Our new and improved rankings are intended to reward universities that protect and defend the freedom of speech while empowering students and parents who care about free speech not to attend or support universities that don't."

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