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Every University in the Country Should Adopt the University of Chicago’s Academic Freedom Statement

The Eternally Radical Idea

This article appeared in The Huffington Post.

Though far from over, 2015 may be remembered as a year when free speech and academic freedom on campus took center stage. From the months-long Title IX “inquisition” waged against Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis, to students in Utah and Texas being confined to tiny “free speech zones,” to the University of California’s Orwellian “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance,” to the rise of campus trends like the policing of micro-aggressions and trigger warnings, students, professors, alumni, and even our president are wondering aloud if our campuses have lost their way.

Therefore, I am pleased to announce that today, my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has officially launched a national campaign asking colleges and universities to adopt the free expression statement authored by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago earlier this year. FIRE endorsed the statement back in January and has written hundreds of faculty members, students, and student journalists at institutions nationwide encouraging them to do the same. Since then, USA Today, The New York Daily News, and others have endorsed the statement, while earlier this summer, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni sent a letter to more than 19,000 college and university trustees, urging college governing boards to endorse similar statements. As FIRE writes in our press release about our new campaign:

Momentum behind the statement’s widespread adoption is growing. Princeton University and Purdue University adopted the core values of the statement into their own policies earlier this year. Earlier this month, Johns Hopkins University announced a new academic freedom policy embracing the spirit of the Chicago statement, and faculty at American University endorsed a similar set of principles in a faculty senate resolution. Last Thursday, the general faculty of Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina endorsed the Chicago principles, bringing the statement to its first historically black college or university.

This announcement comes after the Sunday Washington Post published an op-ed by FIRE’s Will Creeley and Geoffrey Stone, the current Dean of the University of Chicago Law School and one of the authors of the statement, urging universities to protect academic freedom and free speech:

Restrictions on free expression on college campuses are incompatible with the fundamental values of higher education. At public institutions, they violate the First Amendment; at most private institutions, they break faith with stated commitments to academic freedom. And these restrictions are widespread: The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s most recent survey of college and university policies found that more than 55 percent of institutions maintain illiberal speech codes that prohibit what should be protected speech. For students and faculty, the message is clear: Speaking your mind means putting your education or your career at risk.

The statement, which can be adapted to all universities — not just the University of Chicago — guarantees “all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” Most importantly, it makes clear that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

The Chicago statement is one of the best, most inspiring declarations of the critical importance of free speech on college campuses that I have seen in my career. And make no mistake about it, if universities reaffirm the necessity of free speech on campus, our students will enjoy better educations. As Stone and Creeley write in their op-ed:

Backed by a strong commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom, faculty could challenge one another, their students and the public to consider new possibilities, without fear of reprisal. Students would no longer face punishment for exercising their right to speak out freely about the issues most important to them. Instead of learning that voicing one’s opinions invites silencing, students would be taught that spirited debate is a vital necessity for the advancement of knowledge. And they would be taught that the proper response to ideas they oppose is not censorship, but argument on the merits. That, after all, is what a university is for.

If you want your alma mater to endorse the Chicago statement, I encourage you to sign FIRE’s pledge and write to your alma maters or local institutions. And make sure to check out Geoffrey Stone and Will Creeley’s Sunday Washington Post op-ed about the statement, as well as this video of Geoffrey Stone discussing universities’ role in promoting free expression and the making of the Chicago statement.

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