Universities should endorse free expression now, avoid criticism later
In the latest iteration of targeted fliers on college campuses, Cleveland State University (CSU) students woke up Monday morning to find buildings plastered with posters urging members of the LGBT community to commit suicide. However vile one may find them to be, these posters are protected under the First Amendment.
Rightfully, CSU President Ronald Berkman released a statement addressing the incident and affirming CSU’s simultaneous commitments to free speech, inclusiveness, and civil discourse. But for many members of the campus community, that wasn’t enough.
Berkman quickly became the target of widespread outrage, with critics claiming he did not denounce the fliers’ message forcefully enough. Frustrated Twitter users called the president’s response a “disgrace” and “cowardly.” Some even accused him of outright endorsing the posters’ message. The following day, Berkman issued a second statement, calling the posters “reprehensible” — underscoring the university’s obligation to uphold the First Amendment — and inviting members of the community to join him in a dialogue about the incident the following day.
Increasingly, leaders of our nation’s colleges and universities are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to confronting controversial speech on campus. Administrators who voice support for free speech only when a controversy arises are accused by outraged students of supporting the underlying message. If they fail to mention their First Amendment obligations during such a controversy, however, other critics are quick to remind them that they must uphold the free speech rights of their students and faculty.
But we at FIRE bring a message of hope to weary college administrators: With some simple policy updates, this conundrum can be avoided.
This type of situation is precisely why we at FIRE urge colleges and universities to proactively adopt a statement on freedom of expression modeled after the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” at the University of Chicago (“the Chicago Statement”). FIRE has encouraged colleges and universities to adopt the Chicago Statement — the gold standard for institutional free speech policy statements — since its inception in 2015.
When institutional leaders wait until controversy erupts on campus to publicly endorse free speech, detractors often accuse well-meaning administrators of favoring one side over the other. A proactive endorsement of free expression principles effectively shuts down any criticism that the university is picking sides in the lastest campus controversy. Why wait until a controversial speaker comes to campus or racist posters fill your residence halls to take a principled stand on free speech? Instead, consider adopting a free expression statement today.