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Purdue President and Students Join Forces for Free Speech on Campus

By October 1, 2015

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels had found what he was looking for.

Since late 2014, Daniels had, with the help of FIRE, been taking a hard look at the university’s written policies to ensure they didn’t infringe on speech rights on campus. But Daniels wanted to do more.

“We were already busy trying to make certain that we had clear and forceful protections of First Amendment rights in place here at Purdue. In the process, I read the Chicago principles,” Daniels said of the statement on free speech authored by the University of Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression.

The principles, he said, took the words right out of his mouth.

“I thought they were tremendous,” Daniels said. “It was a crystal clear statement that captured what we were trying to do.”

What exactly Daniels was trying to do was more than simply eliminate Purdue’s speech codes. Through the Chicago principles—which champion “a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation” on campus and boldly proclaim that “without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university”—the former governor of Indiana saw the opportunity to make a bigger statement about the importance of free inquiry on America’s campuses.

“Anyone paying attention knows about the erosion of respect for First Amendment principles,” Daniels said. “You’d really have to be trying not to be bothered by the steady stream of trespasses of those principles on way too many campuses.”

FIRE can attest to that.

Through the years, we’ve reported on many egregious cases, such as universities punishing students for a variety of protected speech (including a student being expelled for a Facebook post he didn’t even write), censorship and investigations of faculty for talking about sex-related issues, and, most recently, the crusade by the University of California system to censor and regulate statements subjectively deemed “intolerant.”

That trend, says Daniels “is possibly the most concerning thing of all,” because, as he sees it, threats to free expression on campus threaten our entire society.

“If these other schools choose to embarrass themselves by forcing conformity of thought, allowing diverse opinions to be shouted down or disinvited, that’s their problem,” Daniels said. “However, if they’re raising up a generation of graduates with an upside-down version of our constitutional rights, that’s everybody’s problem.”

Student Government Passes Simultaneous Resolution

Purdue student Andrew Zeller had come to the conclusion on his own that something needed to be done.

Zeller became interested in free speech advocacy almost by accident. A few years back, Zeller said, some fellow students invited him to an on-campus talk by FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff at the last minute.

“I was like, well I have no idea what this is about, but I don’t have that much work to do tonight, so, sure. And so I went to that talk by Greg and heard about all these ridiculous examples, the [Barnes v.] Zaccari case, and all these other things. And I couldn’t believe it. And I think that’s the reaction most people have.”

Ever since, Zeller had been pouring over every resource he could find on free speech, and he grew concerned about Purdue policies that could be abused.

So, unbeknownst to President Daniels, Zeller—then a member of the Purdue Graduate Student Government, of which he’s now president—was simultaneously working on his own solution.

Zeller and his wife, Emilie Watson, herself active in undergraduate student government, were working with FIRE to address those same speech codes—five policies, to be exact—in hopes of earning FIRE’s coveted “green light” rating.

“We brought it in front of both of those groups to say that this was something that we should all get behind and believe in, and should advocate that the university address,” Zeller said. “We passed a joint resolution between the student governments in support of making changes to those five policies. … As part of all that, I wound up being in a meeting with President Daniels.”

At that point Daniels told Zeller he wanted to pitch the Chicago principles to the trustees.

“I had read them and thought they were fantastic,” Zeller said. “So, when he suggested ‘Why don’t we do this, too?’ I was thrilled and very enthusiastically agreed. … That goes above and beyond everything. It takes a step beyond just making sure our policies are not infringing on First Amendment rights, but taking a proactive, positive stance on the issue.”

After Daniels pitched the idea to the university’s trustees, they approved the policy in May of this year, making Purdue the first public university to adopt the statement. Princeton University, which is private, had adopted the statement the previous month.

“It’s the conclusion any American ought to come to.”

Mitch Daniels expresses disbelief that other universities haven’t rushed to encourage free and open debate on their campuses. For him, it’s about being a good citizen.

“I would like to think any American with any sense of our traditions and principles would find that statement on-target and almost obvious.” Daniels said. “So, I hope that many, many others will adopt it.”

For more campuses to come together in support of the Chicago statement in particular would hold special meaning for Daniels, who says “there’s strength in the numbers.”

“I thought back to the Sullivan principles against apartheid. That’s the analogy that popped to mind. As opposed to every company writing its own statement against apartheid, there was power in the fact that so many subscribed to a common statement,” Daniels said.

“It’s the notion that you might be able to build a strong counterpoint to these attacks on free expression and diversity of thought through a common statement.”

And unlike other universities feeling pressure to censor offending language—including from expansive interpretations of federal regulations like Title IX, which has prompted many universities to adopt overly broad bans on speech that might offend on the basis of gender—Daniels isn’t worried.

“We felt no threat here, and hopefully never will,” Daniels said. “To allow apprehension or fear like that to coerce oneself almost into suppressing basic rights would really be a dereliction of duty. We at least have not felt any such pressure. We didn’t let what I hope is an imaginary concern get in our way.

“Words can change the world.”

While not involved in adopting these protections, there has been some disagreement among the faculty.

Kirk Alter, chairperson of the University Senate, said he personally believes in the principles.

“Does anybody really disagree with free speech? I hope not,” Alter said. “As a public university, there’s just no question about First Amendment rights.”

But there were questions—and serious concerns—raised by as much as half of the faculty about just how much free speech is too much.

“The reason they have controversy is because we have learned over time as a society that things like hate speech are, in fact, hateful and problematic, and we’ve learned that harassment in the workplace and in the learning environment is obviously wrong,” Alter said. “So it’s this balance. How do you balance between First Amendment rights and creating a non-hostile work and learning environment? That’s really the rub. And do you need written principles to do that? That’s was the argument,” said Alter, who estimated the faculty was “relatively evenly split” on the measure.

One faculty member who supported the Chicago statement was Yvonne Pitts, an associate professor of history, who called free expression on campus “a hugely important issue.”

Pitts, who is openly gay, drew both praise and ire back in 2009 for defending the First Amendment rights of an anti-gay blogger. She told FIRE in a statement that both the student resolution and the adoption of the Chicago principles move Purdue in the right direction.

The student resolution, she said, “brings Purdue University in line with its stated ideal creating a campus which values and protects all members’ ability to express themselves, no matter how unpopular their ideas might be to the majority of the community.”

“The ability to express one’s ideas is fundamental to free inquiry and to ensuring a participatory democratic political process,” she added. “In adopting the Chicago Principles, the university has demonstrated its willingness to protect dissenting voices and safeguard the expression of minority opinions. Speech can incite action; words can change the world.”

For Andrew Zeller, he thinks words—with all their persuasive potential—are not simply an effective way to change the world, but the best way.

Colleges and universities hoping to make campus a “safer” place for minority groups by restricting speech, he says, take away the most critical tool from the people they’re trying to help.

“The world doesn’t end when you let people say what they want to say,” Zeller said. “In fact, it’s precisely when you do that that we come to a better and deeper understanding and greater appreciation for the rights of all people, including minorities.”

As for getting other colleges and universities to adopt the Chicago principles, where the university president, board of trustees, and the entire student body don’t just happen to be on the same wavelength? Zeller said all it takes is one voice.

“It’s empowering … how many other people will come out and support you once you start saying things. Once you start advocating for free speech or against speech codes, against trigger warnings, against these types of things, it’s very encouraging how many people agree, but you would never know agreed,” Zeller said.

“There are lots more supporters out there, so long as someone takes the first step,” he said. “I think that’s really what makes the difference.”

Schools: Purdue University