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Alumni, faculty, and students bring free speech commitment to Davidson College

Davidson College entrance sign

Davidson College just took a big step toward building a more speech-friendly campus. Through its new “Commitment to Freedom of Expression,” Davidson promises its whole campus community will have the ability to work and learn without the risk of censorship. 

The commitment was formally adopted on March 6, 2023 and decisively states, “The role of the college is to sustain an environment in which all students can freely learn.” Furthermore, “It is not the proper role of the College to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find uncomforting, disagreeable, or offensive.”

FIRE commends Davidson for clearly articulating that it’s always better to battle offensive speech with more speech rather than with censorship — stating that the potential discomfort free speech can cause is far outweighed by its benefits. 

According to the college’s press release, “The statement also confronts head-on the idea that the principles of diversity and free expression are at odds. Instead, the commitment declares, they are essential to each other.” 

The principles outlined in the statement are meant to encourage discussion across differences, protect civil liberties, and guarantee that students will leave college ready to participate in our democracy.

Davidson argues that diversity and freedom of speech are complementary, not incompatible, as some would make them out to be. Guaranteeing free expression is the best way to ensure diverse people and ideas can flourish in the college environment.

“Our nation needs more of what Davidson can provide—a place where debate runs civilly and freely, in a residence hall or a lecture hall,” said former North Carolina governor James G. Martin, a Davidson alumnus and former faculty member who helped craft the free speech statement and who fervently believes in the value of a Davidson education. The commitment, Martin noted, was created by talking across differences between students, faculty, and alumni. “This commitment was crafted by a group who came from different backgrounds, experiences and ideologies, and those differences brought a lasting result.” 

Martin is also a member of Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse, an alumni group whose advocacy work was instrumental in the statement’s adoption. The DFTD has petitioned the college for a free expression statement since 2018, when it sent a letter to then-college President Carol Quillen, asking her administration to adopt the “Chicago Statement,” like almost 100 other United States colleges and universities. The principles outlined in the statement are meant to encourage discussion across differences, protect civil liberties, and guarantee that students will leave college ready to participate in our democracy.

In 2021, President Quillen appointed a taskforce to develop a free expression statement specifically for Davidson College. Among the appointed task force members was Martin. In a couple of months, the task force returned with a statement that mirrored the Chicago Statement’s free speech protections. 

While waiting for the statement’s adoption, the alumni group collected 172 signatures, including 19 from former trustees of the college. In 2022, they submitted these signatures to the board of trustees, to encourage it to adopt the free expression statement drafted by the taskforce. 

Davidson College

Davidson poised to become first private college in North Carolina to adopt free expression statement

Press Release

Finally, on March 6, 2023, under the leadership of new college President Douglas A. Hicks, Davidson announced its formal adoption of a free expression statement entitled “Davidson’s Commitment to Freedom of Expression.” Watching this years-long struggle to bring a free expression statement to Davidson reminds us at FIRE that the work we’re doing with alumni activists is worthwhile. 

John E. Craig, chairman of the DFTD Board of Directors, said, DFTD “is delighted that Davidson's faculty has affirmed a strong Freedom of Expression Statement. Our DFTD alumni group has been urging for this since 2018, and we are grateful for the careful thought and hard work that went into the creation and now affirmation of the Statement.” 

Alumni often reach out to FIRE because they are frustrated with their college’s tendency to censor students and faculty. They reminisce about the great debates they had during undergrad and shake their heads at the thought that their children and grandchildren might not have the same opportunity. Some become convinced that there is nothing they can do to help their alma maters. But the success of alumni groups like Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse prove alumni, especially together, have the power to create real change for their alma maters. 

For any alum who would like to promote free speech at their alma mater, FIRE has a whole list of ideas for how you can promote a culture of free expression on campus.

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