FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus

In 1644, John Milton, the great English poet, writing against censorship, called upon his nation to be “the mansion house of liberty.” If the censors moved against books, he warned, why would they not next move to ban or license popular songs, preaching, conversations, or even street entertainment? He urged authority to want not the outward conformity of coerced belief but, rather, the living choices of free and tested citizens. A person’s character, he wrote, is not worth praise if it “never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race.” The mark of our character lay not in our protection from the words of others, but in our responsibility for our own choices. He urged authority further to trust that, under liberty and law, truth (and virtue) would win in a free and open contest against error and vice. “Let [truth] and falsehood grapple, who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.” Milton’s words—meant for the particular context of seventeenth-century England—rise above their historical setting. If any institution on earth should be “the mansion house of liberty,” trusting in “a free and open encounter” of truth and error, it should be higher education in a free society. This Guide intends to move us closer to that ideal. Free speech is an indispensable part of human dignity, progress, and liberty.


If you’ve read this guide and would like to provide feedback, please complete our Student Rights on Campus Survey.