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New guidelines urge university leaders to protect free speech

By September 28, 2017

In guidelines released this month for the leaders of higher education, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges calls on institutional policy-makers to educate themselves on free speech principles and adopt policies protecting free speech on their campuses. The report provides invaluable advice for university leaders looking to protect freedom of speech and academic freedom at their institutions.

In “Freedom of Speech on Campus: Guidelines for Governing Boards and Institutional Leaders,” the AGB states six core proposals for governing boards:

  1. Board members should be well informed about the rights established by the First Amendment, and its principles, and how they apply to the campus’s commitment to freedom of speech.

  2. Governing boards should understand and recognize the alignment between freedom of speech and academic freedom.

  3. Governing boards should ensure that policies that clarify campus freedom of speech rights are reflective of institutional mission and values.

  4. Board discussion and debate should model civil and open dialogue.

  5. Board members should encourage presidents to initiate communication with, and be available to, those students who want to be heard by institutional leaders about campus culture and issues related to freedom of speech.

  6. Governing boards should make clear their support of presidents in the implementation of campus freedom of speech policies.

Several of these recommendations refer to the state of the law on free speech in higher education, and the report provides a helpful explanation of the narrow exceptions to the First Amendment. The report discusses how public colleges may legally prohibit true threats, unlawful harassment, or speech that incites lawless action, but also how bans on “hate speech” and offensive speech are inconsistent with the First Amendment. Governing boards are encouraged to seek legal counsel in order to fully consider the legal, financial, and reputational risks of implementing and enforcing flawed speech policies.  

The guidelines feature a strong statement on academic freedom, urging university leadership to protect the “rights of members of the faculty to teach, publish, conduct research, and otherwise communicate ideas—including ideas that might be considered inconvenient or even offensive to some internal or external stakeholders.” They also advise governing boards to work with faculty to create a culture of free speech on campus.

Furthermore, the report provides recommendations for governing boards when faced with free speech issues. In addition to calling for the adoption of policies that clearly protect free speech, the ABG implores university leadership to clarify to their students that “they should not presume that the institution will or should protect them from exposure to ideas that might be uncomfortable or even offensive.” This requires courage and a strong commitment to the importance of free speech to their educational mission, as well as a deep understanding of First Amendment principles.

In closing, the guidelines acknowledge the gravity and difficulty of implementing their suggestions:

The issues surrounding freedom of speech in higher education today are sensitive and volatile. … The challenge for higher education and its leadership is how best to address the tensions associated with a campus’s expectations of an almost unlimited exchange of ideas. … Meeting this responsibility is not easy, but it goes to the very essence of the academic enterprise.

FIRE could not agree more, and we encourage educational leaders to give these guidelines a careful read. As always, we stand ready to assist administrators in revising their speech codes and making their colleges better places for free speech.