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College presidents launching free speech initiatives: The buck stops with you

FIRE President & CEO Greg Lukianoff

WATCH: FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff on five ways college presidents can prove their commitment to free speech.

College presidents launching free speech initiatives: The buck stops with you

It’s not everyday that presidents from more than a dozen of the nation’s leading universities announce an ambitious initiative advocating for free expression in higher education, but that’s exactly what happened last week, according to a press release from The Institute for Citizens & Scholars and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The new advocacy campaign, known as the Campus Call for Free Expression, is a “commitment by a diverse group of college presidents to urgently spotlight, uplift, and re-emphasize the principles of critical inquiry and civic discourse on their campuses.” It includes as members the presidents of Claremont McKenna College, Cornell University, DePauw University, Duke University, James Madison University, Rollins College, Rutgers University, University of Notre Dame, University of Pittsburgh, University of Richmond, Wellesley College, and Wesleyan University. 

The Knight Foundation is providing $250,000 to help launch a new free speech campaign that will emphasize the importance of free expression on college campuses through orientation activities, debates and scholarly events, convocation speeches, faculty seminars, and more. The president of Rutgers, Jonathan Holloway, even plans to teach a course on citizenship and free expression “through the lens of public institutions.”

These are all laudable actions, and FIRE is excited to see presidents from these institutions answering the call to protect freedom of speech on their campuses, especially in the wake of numerous events in recent years that have had a chilling effect on free speech — from retaliation against faculty for expressing their political views to student-led shout-downs of speakers with controversial views.

Ultimately, the responsibility falls on college leadership, especially presidents, to publicly and unapologetically show their support for free expression. 

However, as FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff noted back in 2019, it takes more than campus activities and events to promote a culture of free expression on campus. 

FIRE President & CEO Greg Lukianoff

Five ways university presidents can prove their commitment to free speech


Greg's 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.

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So what should college presidents do, according to Greg?

First, stop breaking the law. When a public university restricts freedom of speech, it violates the First Amendment. Although private universities do not share the same legal obligations, many of them make promises to preserve and promote the free speech rights of students and faculty, and they must honor those commitments.

Speaking of commitments, Greg’s second piece of advice is to enshrine free speech protections in official campus policy. One such policy, the “Chicago Statement,” has been adopted by more than 100 colleges and institutions and is viewed by FIRE as the gold standard for free speech commitments. 

But you can’t stop there. It’s easy enough to congratulate yourself for putting a commitment in writing, but the real test is when a campus controversy arises over speech protected by the Constitution or by your school’s commitment to free speech. What do you do then? Do you try and wait it out? Hope that everything will blow over? 

Well, FIRE hopes not, because your silence will have a chilling effect on free speech. As the university president, you must “defend the free speech rights of your students and faculty loudly, clearly, and early,” says Greg.

One of the most difficult things you will have to do as president will be to defend unpopular speech, even speech that you disagree with, but that is your obligation. Ultimately, the responsibility falls on college leadership, especially presidents, to publicly and unapologetically show their support for free expression. According to FIRE’s 2022 College Free Speech Rankings, students at the top-ranked schools reported that their administration’s stance on free speech is clear and that their administration would likely defend a speaker’s rights during a controversy on campus, a sentiment that is far less common at schools lower in the rankings.

College Free Speech Rankings


The College Free Speech Rankings is a comprehensive comparison of the student experience of free speech on their campuses.

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What else can you do? Well, after you have planned for all of that, you should prepare to teach free speech from day one through campus activities and events. In doing so, you’ll clearly convey to students and faculty that the university places a high value on freedom of speech and civil discourse. FIRE even has free speech orientation materials on our website for interested schools.

Finally, as the leaders of scholarly institutions, you must treat commitments to freedom of speech as yet another scholarly endeavor. Universities should survey students, professors, and administrators to “understand their attitudes toward free expression, and to gather opinions of the campus climate for debate, discussion, and dissent.” 

FIRE has been defending freedom of speech and academic freedom since 1999, so trust us when we say that it’s no easy feat. Free speech controversies on campus can quickly become heated, and when tensions are high, it will probably seem easier to give in to calls for censorship. But strong defenses of free speech from administrations can just as quickly tip the scales back.

This is what it takes to defend free speech on campus, and, as Greg writes, “College presidents unwilling to take these steps should leave you wondering how committed they really are to protecting free speech.”

As always, FIRE is here to help as these presidents endeavor to promote a culture of free speech on campus.

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