FIRE’s five steps for college presidents to support free speech | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

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With the beginning of the 2022-23 academic year, college presidents are welcoming incoming freshmen to campus with a few words of encouragement. This year, many presidents emphasized the importance of free and open discourse to uphold the mission of a liberal education. We’re pleased with this strong start to the academic year, but encourage these presidents not to stop there. FIRE has compiled five steps for college presidents to support free speech at their colleges.

Step 1: Stop violating the law

Schools must uphold free speech principles in policy and in practice. FIRE’s research reveals that nearly 90% of the nation’s largest and most prestigious colleges and universities maintain at least one policy that impermissibly limits protected speech. We encourage schools to work with FIRE to revise those policies, so they cannot be applied in a manner that infringes on free speech. 

Step 2: Pre-commit/recommit to free speech and inquiry

Schools must make their commitment to freedom of expression clear. A passing reference in a “welcome back” address to students is a start, but universities should also memorialize that commitment by officially adopting a free speech policy statement. More than 85 schools have adopted a version of what FIRE sees as the gold standard for such policy statements — the Chicago Statement. Schools can work with FIRE to adapt the statement for their campus.

Step 3: Defend the free speech rights of your students and faculty loudly, clearly, and early

School leadership must defend their students and faculty when presented with demands to censor. It is easy to make commitments to free speech in the abstract, through something like a vague reference in an email welcoming freshmen to the campus. But when push comes to shove, and college presidents are faced with demands to censor unpopular speech, we’ve seen them waver. Campus leadership must stand on principle and defend free speech — publicly, loudly, and clearly — at the very beginning of a controversy to preemptively prevent violations of student and faculty rights. 

Step 4: Be scholars: Collect data

Leaders must seek to understand the climate for freedom of expression on their campuses. Last week, FIRE released our 2022-2023 College Free Speech Rankings, which ranks the speech climates of 203 colleges and universities in order from top (the University of Chicago) to bottom (Columbia University). We scored institutions on ten sub-components, including students’ comfort expressing ideas publicly and their perception of administrative support for free speech. With 63% of students responding that they fear reputational damage if they speak their minds, the rankings are a call to action for universities to improve the climate for free speech by taking all of the above steps.

Step 5: Teach free speech from day one

More schools should, as some admirably did this year, teach about free speech at orientation. If incoming students don’t have a full understanding of their free speech rights in the college setting, they may not feel confident exercising those rights. Further, if they haven’t learned about the importance of the First Amendment and free speech principles, they may participate in demands for censorship. 

In partnership with New York University’s First Amendment Watch, FIRE has created a series of modules, videos, and other resources to teach incoming students about their free speech rights and the principles behind the First Amendment at orientation. If you are an administrator in the field of student affairs or first-year experience and are interested in adopting the orientation program — or if you are a faculty member looking to use our materials in class — check out our FAQ on adopting the materials and reach out to us at orientation@thefire.org

Universities with excellent welcome statements on free expression

FIRE maintains a database that contains statements on free expression from college leadership nationwide. This year, more university presidents than ever used the start of the fall semester as an opportunity to educate incoming students on the importance of free speech and rigorous discourse. We applaud their efforts to encourage students toward the courageous use of their right to free speech. Princeton University, Harvard University, and the University of Pennsylvania all were standouts in this regard. 

At Princeton (ranked 169), university President Christopher L. Eisgruber, hosted a freshman orientation session entirely dedicated to free expression. Eisgruber explained that incoming students “have the right to make arguments and statements that are discomforting to others—including to me.” This is a strong statement about the value of open discussion in the university and suggests that Princeton may be taking action, from the top down, to support freedom of speech. 

President Larry Bacow of Harvard (ranked 170) discussed how best to uphold Harvard’s motto, “Veritas,” and demonstrated an awareness that incoming college students might not understand the nature of free academic inquiry that is the bread and butter of university education:

Truth needs to be tested and needs to be revealed and that can only happen on the anvil of competing ideas. If you really seek the truth, it’s important to engage with people who think differently from you. Even more importantly, you need to be willing to change your mind in the face of a better argument or new information.

At University of Pennsylvania, rated second only to Columbia University on the bottom of FIRE’s 2022 Free Speech Rankings, incoming President Liz Magill wowed us with her speech to incoming students. Magill shared her experience working as a law clerk under Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She referenced the famed relationship between RBG and Justice Antonin Scalia who, though distant in political ideology, maintained a close friendship full of disagreement and mutual respect. In a strong statement about the value of academic discourse, Magill said, “Our willingness and our ability to engage with and understand views different from our own, to hear out ideas we disagree with, and to be humble enough to rethink our own views and question orthodoxies—this is essential.” FIRE applauds Magill for sharing this tremendous insight and supports the attempt to transform the hostile environment for free speech at UPenn. 

Although these speeches are tremendously encouraging (who doesn’t want to hear college presidents espouse the values of the traditional university), they are not, in themselves, sufficient to reform the damaged speech cultures at these institutions.

FIRE continues to advocate for universities to strongly protect the rights of students and faculty and stands ready and waiting to offer support to university leaders who want to encourage free expression at their institutions by taking the five important steps outlined above. 

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