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Could It Be a Trend? More Colleges Endorse Free Speech After UChicago

By September 8, 2016

FIRE is seeing an encouraging uptick in pro-free speech statements by college administrators early in this academic year. In just a few weeks’ time, administrators at schools like Columbia University, Brown University, and Claremont Mckenna College (CMC) have all made public statements committing to protect freedom of expression on campus.

The catalyst for this recent batch of speech-friendly statements seems to be the “academic freedom letter” the University of Chicago (UChicago) sent to incoming students last month, advising them not to expect “intellectual ‘safe spaces’” when they arrive on campus. The letter was widely reported on, and reignited the national debate over campus speech restrictions. It also seems to have resonated with many other college administrators.

Earlier this week, we reported that Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger made censorship the theme of his remarks to incoming students. Bollinger said that while he considered issues surrounding free speech to be “highly, highly complicated,” he was also resolute on some points.

“We don’t ban speech. We don’t censor speech,” Bollinger said, calling on students to use the power of free speech to effect change on campus.

“To say we can’t ban speech is easy. To say what follows next, is hard,” Bollinger observed. “There is the point: How you grapple with ideas, with thoughts, and viewpoints, and the myriad of ways available to you, will determine who you are.”

Then, earlier this week, The Washington Post ran an op-ed from Brown President Christina Paxson on why the school is “A safe space for freedom of expression.” FIRE has previously reported at length on some of Brown’s historically unfriendly practices when it comes to free expression—including a Q&A with one student who went so far as to start an underground free speech group so that he and others could discuss controversial subjects without fear of repercussions from Brown administrators or fellow students. Such a turnaround from Paxson, then, would be a most welcome development.

And at Claremont McKenna, President Hiram E. Chodosh and Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty Peter Uvin penned a joint message directly responding to UChicago’s academic freedom letter. In it, the pair wrote that “[b]oth the faculty and our Board of Trustees have endorsed the University of Chicago’s Principles of Free Expression as consistent with our own.” (Notably, this links to an older policy statement authored by UChicago, not the Chicago Statement that FIRE has endorsed, but it’s still a great start.)

Chodosh and Uvin added, “We do not mandate trigger warnings. We invite controversial speakers. We accord these rights to our students as well, whether they agree or disagree with faculty, administrators, or one another.”

Just yesterday we reported that Syracuse University committed to overhauling its speech codes. And even one of the more notorious schools on FIRE’s radar—DePaul University, which just last semester admitted it prevented certain political speech on campus because it disagreed with the candidate’s views, and, separately, has on numerous occasions prevented student groups from inviting controversial speakers—announced it will host a “President’s Series on Race and Free Speech.

But it must be said that UChicago’s letter—and the response it generated—didn’t come out of the blue. Instead, it built on other efforts to protect campus speech over the past few years: At more than a dozen schools, either the administration or the faculty have endorsed the Chicago Statement since FIRE endorsed it in early 2015. Even President Obama weighed in on the importance of free speech on campus when he said students shouldn’t “be coddled and protected from different points of view.”

Many schools have also been ahead of this latest curve. This spring, the president of Wake Forest University included a pro-speech note in the school’s alumni magazine. And as we’ve covered here extensively at FIRE, universities like Purdue University, UChicago, and the 28 schools receiving FIRE’s, highest “green light” rating have all made great strides toward ensuring expressive rights are protected on their campuses—even when those efforts were met with resistance or were unpopular.

Despite what we hope is a trend, there is still work to be done on getting these important issues to the forefront of the consciousness in higher education.

Take the recent comments by University of Nebraska Chancellor Ronnie Green, who referenced the school’s “not-negotiable,” “newly articulated beliefs statements” which include:

  • We believe in the freedom of speech, and encourage the expression of ideas and opinions, and we do not tolerate words and actions of hate and disrespect.

Unfortunately for Chancellor Green, at a public institution like the University of Nebraska, the First Amendment is not negotiable—and, typically, words of “hate and disrespect” are protected by the First Amendment.

We hope schools like Columbia, Brown, Claremont McKenna, and others continue their work toward protecting campus speech even when doing so isn’t necessarily fashionable or popular.

Cases: FIRE Launches Campaign in Support of University of Chicago Free Speech Statement