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Northwestern alumni draft open letter supporting free expression and institutional neutrality

Entrance sign and gardens to Northwestern University

Ken Wolter /

Alumni are banding together at Northwestern to protect free speech. 

Just weeks after Northwestern President Michael Schill announced the creation of the Advisory Committee on Free Expression and Institutional Speech, the newly formed Northwestern Free Speech Alliance has released an open letter asking the university to adopt a strong free expression statement and commit to institutional neutrality. 

This is a clear crossroads for Northwestern. The president formed the advisory committee in response to heightened campus tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but issues with free expression at Northwestern are far from new. The committee's stated purpose is to investigate the “boundaries, if any, for free expression and academic freedom” and whether the university should make statements on “political, social or international matters.” The committee has the opportunity to improve free expression culture at Northwestern by recommending strong free speech protections and supporting research, debate, and free inquiry for all. 

Alternatively, if the committee releases a statement placing undue restrictions on freedom of expression, it would signal to the Northwestern community that the university is not the place to have difficult conversations. Stifling expression would undermine the university’s commitment to “excellent teaching, innovative research and the personal and intellectual growth of its students” — hurting students and faculty alike. 

Speech climate at Northwestern

FIRE included Northwestern in its 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech in 20212018, and 2016, and it continues to earn a “red light” speech code rating for maintaining at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech on campus. Northwestern also scored poorly in FIRE’s 2024 College Free Speech Rankings, landing in the bottom 10 out of 248 colleges and universities. The school’s atrocious score in the rankings was based, in part, on the results of a student survey about the perception of free speech rights on campus. The results show that students at Northwestern are worried about what to say on campus: 

  • 44% of students say they have self-censored on campus at least once or twice a month.
  • 61% of students say they are worried about damaging their reputation because someone misunderstands something they have said or done.
  • 68% of students say shouting down a speaker to prevent them from speaking on campus is rarely, sometimes, or always acceptable.

The alumni are getting things started, but they need your support. Sign onto the Northwestern Free Speech Alliance’s open letter, and signal to the administration that Northwestern needs more protection for free speech, not less! 

One student responded to our question asking about a moment when they felt they could not share their opinion and explained, “Sometimes I was just afraid of using the wrong terms or accidentally saying something that may be offensive so I don’t usually speak in controversial situations.”

Bringing free speech culture to Northwestern

Northwestern Free Speech Alliance co-leader Joel Sternstein explained his thoughts on Northwestern’s free speech in an interview with FIRE. 

“Northwestern's administration was all too eager to opine on controversial political topics but suddenly discovered neutrality after October 7,” Sternstein said. “Free speech and institutional neutrality should be constants, but I don't think the current regime at NU sees it this way.”

For these reasons, the alumni banded together to proclaim, in their open letter, that “Northwestern must improve its campus culture through robust support for free expression so that faculty and students can teach and learn free of censorship.”

The university needs to be a place where students can debate any idea, challenge established dogmas, and push research forward. With Northwestern’s current policies, the culture remains one where students are concerned their speech won’t be protected, and where social ostracism is the penalty if they express an unpopular opinion — even accidentally.

Graduation preparations on the campus of the University of Chicago located in the Hyde Park neighborhood

Alumni want the University of Chicago to stay on top of free speech


Alumni have formed the University of Chicago Free Speech Alliance to ensure the university continues to invest in these important principles.

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FIRE has a list of recommendations for how universities can improve their culture for expression, which include two that the Northwestern Free Speech Alliance pushes in its open letter. First, the alumni encourage the university to adopt a free speech statement, and second, they state the university should commit itself to institutional neutrality. The alumni are optimistic that as the university signals its support for its students and faculty, the community will inevitably become more comfortable discussing difficult topics on campus. If Northwestern adheres to an institutional neutrality commitment, the university will also avoid the pitfalls of imposing consensus on contentious issues that need to be debated within the community. The combined impact of adopting both of these recommendations will encourage students and faculty to believe their ideas are welcome at Northwestern.

The alumni are getting things started, but they need your support. Sign onto the Northwestern Free Speech Alliance’s open letter, and signal to the administration that Northwestern needs more protection for free speech, not less! 

Interested in protecting free expression at your alma mater? Join FIRE’s Alumni Network to learn more about how alumni can support free expression!  

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