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BACK TO SCHOOL: How Students and Faculty Can Help Codify Free Speech on Campus

By September 1, 2016

As the new academic year gets underway on university campuses, students and faculty members concerned about the climate for free speech in higher education may be wondering how they can help. With topics such as “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” “hate speech,” and many more continuing to be debated, the start of a new academic year presents a great opportunity for free speech advocates on campus to make a difference.

Fortunately, FIRE is here to assist you, and we have some helpful ideas and tips. If you have been following our website this week, you may have already read our FAQs for student protesters and heard from my colleague Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon about fighting restrictions on political speech and activity. Our next area of focus is working with university leadership to help enact a policy statement on free speech and academic freedom modeled on the terrific report produced by the University of Chicago last year.

The Chicago Statement, as it has come to be known, is the gold standard for universities’ affirmative policy commitments to free expression. It declares, in relevant part:

Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.

[…]

[I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.

In many more eloquent and stirring words, the full Chicago Statement captures the essence of open inquiry and robust debate in the collegiate setting, and provides universities with a practical way of understanding how to protect freedom of expression and academic freedom. Not only that, but the very discussion that surrounds the process of adopting the statement has proven valuable on numerous college campuses, as students, faculty members, and administrators grapple with the role free speech plays at their institution and what it means to commit oneself to open inquiry even when confronted with offensive or divisive viewpoints.

That’s why FIRE undertook a national campaign last September to get other colleges and universities to adopt their own version of the Chicago Statement, an initiative that bore results at such institutions as Purdue University, Columbia University, and the entire University of Wisconsin system. Indeed, as my colleague Alex Morey reported yesterday, the University of Southern Indiana has become the latest school to adopt a version of the Chicago Statement, bolstering First Amendment rights for its students and professors.

We hope that students and faculty at many other institutions will take advantage of this moment—with the national debate swirling around free speech issues in higher education—to advocate for their school to enact the Chicago Statement. Likewise, we hope students and faculty will take advantage of the many resources FIRE offers in this regard, such as a model resolution for the adoption of the Chicago Statement. Members of student governments—as well as students and student organizations with contacts in the student government—will find it easy to adapt and repurpose this model resolution to fit their particular campus. Faculty members can similarly use our model resolution to introduce the Chicago Statement before faculty senates and similar governing bodies, as has been done at Winston-Salem State University, the University of Minnesota, and Louisiana State University, among other schools.

Alumni who want to improve the climate for free speech at their alma mater can also make a difference this year. FIRE has prepared a template endorsement letter that alumni can sign and send to university leadership calling on their alma mater to adopt its own version of the Chicago Statement.

This academic year, the time is ripe for colleges and universities to take a stand for freedom of expression and academic freedom. Students and professors can play an integral part in that process, and we hope they will turn to FIRE, and utilize the resources we make available, in order to do so.