FIRE statement on campus free speech executive order

March 21, 2019

Since 1999, FIRE has defended freedom of expression on our nation’s campuses by fighting for public universities to honor the First Amendment and for private universities to fulfill their voluntary promises of free speech and academic freedom. Today’s executive order directs federal agencies to “take appropriate steps” to “promote free inquiry” at institutions that receive federal research and education grants, including through compliance with the First Amendment or fulfillment of their institutional promises. To the extent that today’s executive order asks colleges and universities to meet their existing legal obligations, it should be uncontroversial.  

FIRE will watch closely to see if today’s action furthers the meaningful, lasting policy changes that FIRE has secured over two decades — or results in unintended consequences that threaten free expression and academic freedom. We note that the order does not specify how or by what standard federal agencies will ensure compliance, the order’s most consequential component. FIRE has long opposed federal agency requirements that conflict with well-settled First Amendment jurisprudence. We will continue to do so.

FIRE knows from years of experience that censorship silences students and faculty from across the ideological and political spectrum. Any principled and effective defense of freedom of expression must protect student and faculty expressive rights without regard to viewpoint. To secure the benefits of the “marketplace of ideas” for campus communities and for our nation as a whole, all students and faculty must be free to peacefully speak their minds.

As our work demonstrates, campus censorship is a real and continuing problem. We appreciate the executive branch’s attention to this issue. As a proudly nonpartisan organization, FIRE will continue to lead the fight for campus speech rights and academic freedom regardless of the political party in power or the popularity of the speech at issue. The First Amendment and freedom of expression require no less.