Concluding a year-long process of deliberating and drafting last month, Gettysburg College’s Board of Trustees approved a comprehensive statement of principles on free expression, the “Freedom of Expression Philosophy.” Echoing the values of the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” at the University of Chicago (the “Chicago Statement”), the Philosophy will serve as a framework for how the Gettysburg administration will approach free speech issues on campus.
Various stakeholders on campus contributed to the formation of this Philosophy. It all began with a campus-wide email from President Janet Riggs last May committing the college to renewing and defining its institutional values following a visit from a controversial speaker. To implement this promise, the president convened a panel in the fall of 2017 composed of faculty members and students to draft a statement that reflected Gettysburg's ongoing commitment to free expression. Next, both the student senate and the faculty senate approved the Philosophy in the spring of 2018. The last step of the ratification process came last month, when the Board of Trustees approved the Philosophy at its May meeting.
FIRE applauds this comprehensive approach to adopting an institutional statement on free expression. The Philosophy will not only guide the Gettysburg community in handling future free speech issues, but also broadly envisions a campus culture in which ideas — popular or not — are expressed, discussed, and debated. “We expect that diverse views and opinions will create conflict and disagreement among us at times,” the Philosophy acknowledges, “but the genuine sharing of ideas, perspectives, and values presupposes both freedom and responsibility.”
The Philosophy aspires to many worthy ideals, but perhaps the best element of the Philosophy is the idea that community members should engage in more speech in response to ideas with which they disagree: “[W]e encourage members of the College community to act according to the principle that the best response to ideas that they find offensive is speech, not censorship.”
The statement adds, “The freedom to express ideas, exchange views, and engage in protest is essential to the life of the College.” FIRE could not agree more that inquiry and expression are indispensable to the core purpose of colleges and universities, which is to engage in the quest for truth.
We would like to commend the Gettysburg administration for adopting this robust statement and clearly committing itself to free expression. Accordingly, FIRE would be pleased to work the college to reform its current speech-related policies in order to enable Gettysburg to ensure the Philosophy is reflected in its other policies. At present, Gettysburg earns a “yellow light” rating in our Spotlight database, meaning it maintains policies that contain ambiguous or vague wording that could easily be used to restrict protected expression.
FIRE encourages other colleges and universities considering adopting a statement on free expression to follow Gettysburg’s lead by including many campus stakeholders in the process. Through this inclusive approach, Gettysburg has clearly demonstrated to its faculty members, students, and the public that the college is committed to the free exchange of ideas on its campus.
Interested in advocating for a free speech statement on your campus? Contact us today!