Alumni are the essential guardians of the policies and culture of their alma maters. Unfortunately, many alumni lack information about the problems occurring on campus and do not understand how to exert their influence to protect academic freedom.
Whether you are an alumnus, trustee, donor, or a concerned parent, FIRE stands ready to assist you as you strive to reinvigorate free expression in higher education. Below you will find programs and policy recommendations assembled by FIRE’s First Amendment legal scholars and litigators that can be adapted and implemented on any campus.
Eliminate free speech restrictions
Alumni should communicate with administrators at their alma mater encouraging them to reform restrictive policies. FIRE’s Policy Reform Department is a team of lawyers who work to evaluate campus policies and work cooperatively with administrators to reform restrictive policies in ways that satisfy campus imperatives while also respecting free speech principles.
Actively commit to free expression
Encourage the college to adopt the Chicago Statement on Freedom of Expression. When students see the leaders of their schools publicly pledge to protect free expression, they feel more secure to speak their minds. This also sets an important expectation for prospective students—come to campus ready to participate in a free exchange of ideas. For free expression to be well protected, colleges nationwide must join the 75+ faculty bodies, colleges, and university systems that have adopted the “Chicago Statement” in defense of free speech on campus
Today, controversies over speech are inevitable. Mealy-mouthed equivocations and vague statements that the school is “looking into” violations of free speech won’t stop the mobs that shut down speakers. However, if college leadership speaks out early, and unequivocally states that a professor or student will not be punished for protected speech, it makes a huge difference. Time and again active affirmation of free speech principles has helped a controversy fizzle out in a few days rather than becoming a months-long ordeal.
Adopt Institutional Neutrality
In 1967, when political tensions on campus were approaching an all-time high at the University of Chicago, a faculty committee found that in adopting institutional positions on various hot-button political issues, the university struggled to achieve its mission.
Chaired by Harry Kalven, Jr. — a leading First Amendment scholar, and the attorney who successfully defended comedian Lenny Bruce against Illinois obscenity charges — the committee produced the Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action (the “Kalven Report”). The Kalven Report concluded institutional neutrality is the best way for universities to navigate heated social and political debates without chilling student and faculty expression.
In light of the challenges facing the academy and the world, FIRE urges colleges and universities to adopt a position of institutional neutrality, for all the reasons identified in the Kalven Report.
Teach free expression from day one
Encourage your institution to implement FIRE’s free speech Freshman Orientation Program. Colleges cannot expect students to arrive on campus with knowledge about the importance of free speech and academic freedom, especially within the campus environment. This leads to a profound mismatch between some students’ expectations and the reality of running a campus that must be dedicated to a liberal education. Freshman orientation programming that addresses free speech can alleviate this problem, to the great benefit of students, faculty, and administrators alike, because it will greatly reduce the pressure on colleges to take actions that go against their stated principles.
This program consists of a series of modules which provide colleges with the materials necessary to teach the importance of free speech and academic freedom, which they may freely use and adapt to their own needs. FIRE can help implement this free speech orientation program at your college or university.
Ensure the right to due process is protected
Colleges and universities across the country fail to provide their students with due process and fundamental fairness in their disciplinary proceedings. FIRE’s annual “Spotlight on Due Process'' report highlights how universities routinely deny key procedural safeguards such as the presumption of innocence, the use of impartial fact-finders, and the participation of an adviser.
Alumni should request their college work with FIRE to adopt FIRE’s Model Code of Student Conduct, which includes a complete set of student conduct procedures, provisions for responding to Title IX allegations that comply with the Department of Education’s most recent Title IX regulations, and core procedural safeguards.
Sponsor a Student Defenders group. Student Defenders serve as advisors to ensure due process in the student conduct process. With both reactive and proactive strategies, student defenders provide a service to individual students as well as the entire campus community. Student leaders are encouraged to partner with FIRE to create their own advising organization, with the intent of promoting fairness in campus disciplinary proceedings and protecting due process for their fellow students. FIRE has toolkits, resources, and guides to train student advocates and support student groups.
Immerse students, faculty, and staff in open dialogue and viewpoint diversity
Sponsor a Let’s Talk discourse club. The events of the past year clearly demonstrated how broken our nation’s discourse has become. That is even more apparent on campus, where students shout down those they disagree with, fear sharing their opinions, report peers for punishment simply for their viewpoints, and all too often view other’s expression as a threat, instead of an opportunity for dialogue. The best way to confront this breakdown is to provide concrete outlets for, and examples of, civil discourse. Partner with FIRE to create a student-run discourse program on your campus of choice. FIRE’s new student discourse program, Let’s Talk, will provide students with tools and resources to build a more intellectually open campus environment and to educate their peers about how to have healthy and productive discussions.
Host a FIRE speaker. Having a Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression staffer come to your school to speak to students, faculty, and administrators is an excellent opportunity to educate students on their First Amendment rights.
Bring viewpoint diversity training to your campus. In the last year, there has been a massive increase in discussion about and interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programming. Corporations are bringing in DEI trainers, K-12 educators are incorporating “anti-racist” readings, and colleges and universities are adding new diversity positions. Sadly, all of this is based on a faulty understanding of diversity that threatens to divide across lines of difference. FIRE partnered with Karith Foster at Inversity™ Solutions to bring her innovative Inversity Program, an initiative that seeks to provide diversity training that works in harmony with free expression, to even more colleges and universities than ever before. Specifically, Inversity’s new campus curriculum will revolutionize how we address diversity and inclusion, communication, and interpersonal relationships.
Collect serious data on the speech climate
The best way to monitor the speech climate of a college campus is to have the school survey its student body. Every institution of higher education should gather information about its campus, because it can’t be waved away with claims that “Other schools are like that, but not mine!” FIRE has already conducted such a survey of students at more than 200 other institutions). Though we surveyed a statistically significant number of students, a transparent and properly conducted survey of a larger proportion of the campus community would provide vital information that would allow leadership to make informed decisions about their college. If done annually, it could be used to judge yearly progress toward a free and open campus climate. FIRE canhelp colleges prep such a survey.
Organize your own alumni group for free speech
Many of these action items are daunting, even impossible, for one advocate to accomplish alone. The most effective way to reform the conditions of free expression at your college is by gathering a group of pro-speech alumni to commit to encouraging free expression at your alma mater. FIRE’s alumni team is happy to guide you through the alumni group creation process so that you will be poised to defend your alma mater from censorship of all kinds.