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FIRE participates in Rep. Murphy’s Campus Free Speech Roundtable for third year in a row

US Capitol Building dome on a sunny day

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Earlier this month, FIRE’s Legislative Counsel John Coleman participated in Rep. Greg Murphy’s third annual “Congressional Campus Free Speech Roundtable” discussion. 

Formerly a member of the House Committee on Education & the Workforce, Rep. Murphy continues this annual roundtable discussion because of his experience on Davidson College’s board of trustees, where he saw the campus community become an environment in which there was “[o]ne way to talk, one way to speak, and one way to believe.”

This problem is reflected in the findings of FIRE’s 2024 Campus Free Speech Rankings. More than half of college students expressed worry about damaging their reputation because of someone misunderstanding what they have said or done, and 20% reported they self-censor at least once or twice a week.

In his comments, Coleman emphasized this is the largest ever survey on college and university students, with more than 55,000 student responses from across more than 250 institutions. He noted that “FIRE designed this as a tool for students and parents to look at whatever school the potential student is interested in and see where they’ve been placed using a variety of factors.” 

Rep. Greg Murphy (left) and FIRE Legislative Counsel John Coleman (right)
Rep. Greg Murphy (left) and FIRE Legislative Counsel John Coleman (right).

House Committee on Education & the Workforce Chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx and Rep. Burgess Owens also participated in the discussion. They were joined by members of the Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse, along with representatives from the American Council of Trustees and AlumniSpeech FirstAlumni Free Speech AllianceYoung America’s Foundation, and undergraduate students from the University of Utah and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Steve McGuire from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni noted that students seem to view free speech as the least important in a set of “competing goods,” and that this is especially problematic on college campuses, which are institutions “specifically designed for people to engage in free inquiry and debate.”

FIRE looks forward to continuing to engage with legislators passionate about fostering a society that values freedom of speech and due process.

John Craig, chairman and co-founder of Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse, noted that “this problem is across ideological boundaries.” Citing FIRE’s research, Craig explained, contrary to popular belief, the majority of students who self-censor on Davidson’s campus aren’t “strong Republicans,” proving this problem impacts students from across the political spectrum. 

Kevin Cook, also from Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse, emphasized that students are paying attention to the rankings and that administrators are sensitive to their school’s performance. “Rare is the instance when the administrator says ‘you’re not going to do this,’” Cook said. Instead, administrators establish a culture where students and faculty feel as though they cannot speak. This concern is in line with our findings in our 2024 Campus Free Speech Rankings. More than 1 in 5 students reported that their administration’s stance on free speech on campus is “not at all” or “not very” clear, and more than a quarter of students reported that it is “not at all” or “not very” likely that their institution’s administration would defend a speaker’s right to express his or her views if a controversy occurred on campus.

Cherise Trump from Speech First highlighted one of the many tools administrators make available to students that students use to censor one another: bias response teams. Trump described BRTs as “anonymous reporting systems where students are encouraged to report on one another.” She believes systems like these are responsible for much of the self-censorship on campus because they teach students to report their classmates, rather than engage with them, as a default position. 

“Only 27% of students at UW-Madison had ever been taught anything about the First Amendment.” 

FIRE has seen bias response teams abuse their authority on college and university campuses throughout the country. For example, in Speech First v. Schlisselthe U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that because the University of Michigan’s bias response team possessed the power to refer incidents to the police or university disciplinary offices, its operation threatened students’ protected speech. 

Entrance to the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University located in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Stopping the speech police: FIRE files amicus brief in challenge to Virginia Tech’s bias policy and other speech codes


The Court should recognize the chilling effect of Bias Response Teams, and recognize Speech First has standing to seek a preliminary injunction to stop these unconstitutional speech codes.

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In another Speech First case against Virginia Tech, Speech First, Inc. v. Sands, FIRE filed an amicus brief in support of Speech First’s petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court, highlighting FIRE’s research and arguing that Virginia Tech’s bias response team impermissibly chills student expression in violation of the First Amendment. We wrote: “Touting the slogan ‘See Something, Say Something,’ Virginia Tech’s [bias response team], organized under the Office of the Dean of Students, encourages students to report others based on protected speech.”

Harrison Wells, president of the Young Americans for Freedom chapter at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was investigated by the university's bias response team for hosting an event featuring conservative commentator Matt Walsh. Through this experience he learned the best way to defend speech on campus is to “change the culture and values of our educational institutions from within.” He referenced a 2023 survey conducted by three UW faculty which found that “Only 27% of students at UW-Madison had ever been taught anything about the First Amendment.” Wells concluded that it’s not surprising students don’t know how to protect one another’s rights when they have very little understanding of our country’s founding values.

FIRE has encouraged lawmakers to look into ways to educate students about their First Amendment rights. At last year’s roundtable, FIRE’s Greg Gonzalez suggested grants to fund orientation programs on free speech for incoming undergraduate students and programming for high school students.

Edward Yingling, co-founder of Princetonians for Free Speech, expressed hope that one day schools will compete to be recognized as institutions that value free speech and that this public recognition will result in more interest from potential applicants.

FIRE looks forward to continuing to engage with legislators passionate about fostering a society that values freedom of speech and due process.

You can watch the roundtable in full below or on Rep. Murphy’s YouTube channel.

WATCH VIDEO: Rep. Murphy's Campus Free Speech Roundtable

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