Indiana to survey college students on campus free speech

May 10, 2021

Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb recently signed into law HB 1549, a bill that broadly addresses several issues in K-12 and higher education. FIRE takes no position on most of the law’s provisions, but we are excited to see that it calls for the state’s public colleges and universities to survey their students on the state of campus free speech. Specifically, each survey must aim:

[T]o determine current perceptions of whether free speech and academic freedom are recognized and fostered by the state educational institution in a manner that welcomes expression of different opinions and ideologies with respect to, but not limited to, classes, professors and instructors, peer interactions, speakers, and campus groups.

HB 1549’s student surveys will comprise one part of a broader free speech report to be gathered by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. The report will also include “a detailed description of each state educational institution’s efforts to recognize and protect the freedom of speech and association rights guaranteed to the members of its campus community.”

FIRE undertook a similar effort in our 2020 College Free Speech Rankings, which were based largely on the voices of 20,000 enrolled students at 55 colleges who participated in a survey we conducted. These rankings unveiled several troubling findings, including that 60% of students can recall at least one time during their college experience when they did not share their perspective for fear of how others would respond. Surveys such as these give defenders of free speech an on-the-ground look into the issues plaguing campus free expression, allowing speech-protective efforts to be targeted towards the most pressing and concerning issues.

Rep. Jack Jordan cited FIRE’s 2020 rankings in explaining his support for HB 1549’s survey provision, calling the challenges facing campus free speech an “across the board” problem. He added, “This is national. I’d like to work together to see, is it any issue in the state of Indiana?”

FIRE is pleased to see that our work played some part in inspiring the Indiana legislature to examine the climate of free speech at the state’s public colleges and universities. We stand ready to use our more than 20 years of experience defending civil liberties on campus, including our expertise in surveying college students on free speech, to assist universities with evaluating and revisiting their policies to ensure they respect student and faculty free speech rights. As we have done with dozens of other institutions, and consistent with our charitable mission, we offer this assistance completely free of charge.