Five ways university presidents can prove their commitment to free speech

June 25, 2019

Threats to free speech and academic freedom on campus constantly change: One year, it’s speech codes and federal government overreach that present the greatest danger. The next, it could be speaker disinvitations and heckler’s vetoes. 

With the targets constantly shifting, what are some effective steps college presidents can take right now to fight censorship, regardless of where it originates? Presidents like to say they are in favor of free speech, but few have presented a plan of action that would improve the state of free speech for their students and faculty members. 

The following five suggestions provide a path for presidents to prove their commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom by leading with basic, clear, and reasonable changes:

1. Stop violating the law. This shouldn’t need to be said — and yet it does. Public universities are bound by the First Amendment. Their policies and practices must protect, and never violate, the free expression of students and professors. Yet 90% of America’s largest and most prestigious four-year public institutions still maintain unconstitutional speech codes that clearly and substantially restrict protected speech, or could too easily be used to restrict protected speech.

Private universities, while not bound by the First Amendment, are required to honor their own promises of free speech and academic freedom. Yet, 88% of top private institutions maintain policies that violate these promises. 

FIRE makes fixing this problem easy, and we do it for free. For more than a decade, FIRE attorneys have made college-specific recommendations to fix restrictive speech codes. We have already succeeded in reforming speech policies at 223 colleges and universities. Want FIRE’s help reforming your speech codes? Get in touch!

2. Pre-commit / recommit to free speech and inquiry. Enshrining protections for free speech in official campus policy can help forestall demands for censorship and repression. But these policies should be adopted publicly and conspicuously before a controversy arises. What’s more, a college president should seek out opportunities to regularly recommit to protecting speech.

One such opportunity comes in the form of adopting a statement drafted by the University of Chicago in 2015, which recommited that university to the principle that “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed.” Since its publication, 65 peer institutions or faculty bodies have adopted versions of what’s become known as the “Chicago Statement.”

Want to adopt the Chicago Statement at your school? FIRE can help. FIRE leads the charge in promoting the value of the Chicago Statement, and has worked with many administrators and faculty members to adopt a version of it on their own campuses.

3. Defend the free speech rights of your students and faculty loudly, clearly, and early. In addition to adopting clear speech protections in campus policy, college presidents should lead from the front when individuals or groups on or off campus make censorship demands. 

Presidents must make clear that punishments based on unpopular or controversial — but protected — speech contradict the values of any university, and will not occur at their college. 

In my experience, many threats to free speech on campus effectively end when campus leadership demonstrates a principled commitment to expressive rights and academic freedom publicly, loudly, and clearly at the very beginning of the controversy. Meanwhile, many censorship incidents end in ignominy when a college president fails to take a decisive stand. 

When college presidents lead from the front in defending their students and faculty members from censorship demands, FIRE will stand behind them in support.

4. Teach free speech from day one. During orientation, colleges should introduce students to the principles of free speech, academic freedom, truth-seeking, and curiosity — making clear how these principles work in practice and why they are absolutely essential to the functioning of a university. Unfortunately, only a handful of colleges do so. 

Most students arrive with little knowledge of these vital concepts. Colleges must therefore lay the groundwork for learning beginning on day one. Such orientation programs should be led by faculty, not administrators; should teach students both the philosophical and pragmatic reasons for freedom of speech and academic freedom (not just the law); and should make abundantly clear that the academy is a unique place where each member of the community is expected to approach their studies and one another with epistemic humility and tremendous curiosity. 

Colleges — with expert faculty members on hand — are uniquely capable of providing students with an engaging introduction to these issues. For our part, FIRE can provide resources to help colleges design such programs, from comic books, to campus speakers, to full curricula.

5. Be scholars: Collect data. Colleges should conduct annual surveys of students, professors, and administrators to understand their attitudes toward free expression, and to gather opinions of the campus climate for debate, discussion, and dissent. 

In order to guarantee reliable and useful data, such surveys should be conducted with oversight from faculty in a transparent way, with the results being public and, preferably, using questions that allow for cross institutional and longitudinal comparisons.

There are a number of national surveys that have already crafted questions aimed at getting beyond lip-service to freedom of speech, and that seek to understand the truth about the environment for dissent, discussion and debate, including those conducted by FIRE

Want FIRE’s help in consulting on a campus climate survey? We stand ready to help in any way we can.

These suggestions are simple: obey the law, commit to academic freedom, defend students and professors who exercise their rights, teach students about freedom of speech, and study your campus climate. College presidents unwilling to take these steps should leave you wondering how committed they really are to protecting free speech. 

But college presidents need your help, too. In my nearly 20 year career defending student and faculty rights, I have seen how controversies around freedom of speech can take a campus by storm. In those moments, it can seem like a college leadership’s only choice is to give in to the voices that call for censorship. But I’ve also seen how supportive letters, emails, and phone calls from current students, faculty, and alumni can tip the balance toward standing strong and preserving student and faculty rights.

I ask you to take action today: Share this list with your college or university president to let them know that you want them to lead the way in protecting free speech and academic freedom on campus.

Thank you.