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  • Corey Lee Wilson

Restoring Free Speech on Campus

Enough is enough! Our colleges and universities should redeem the promise of the new academic year by reaffirming their commitments to freedom of expression.

Censorship in the academic community is commonplace. Students and faculty are increasingly being investigated and punished for controversial, dissenting or simply discomforting speech. It is time for colleges and universities to take a deep breath, remember who they are and reaffirm their fundamental commitment to freedom of expression.

With these goals in mind, in 2015, the University of Chicago convened a Committee on Freedom of Expression to do exactly that. The committee issued a statement identifying the principles that must guide institutions committed to attaining knowledge through free and open discourse. Guaranteeing members of the academic community “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn,” the statement guarantees students and faculty the right “to discuss any problem that presents itself.”

The Chicago Statement (Committee on Freedom of Expression)

How should students and scholars respond when challenged by speech with which they disagree, or that they even loathe? The Chicago Statement (Committee on Freedom of Expression) sets forth the answer: “by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.” Anticipating the push and pull of passionate debate, the statement sets forth important ground rules: “Debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”

Perhaps most important, the Chicago statement makes clear that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” Laura Kipnis, Alice Dreger, and Teresa Buchanan would have benefited from this frank and necessary recognition.

“Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” – The Chicago Statement.

Since last year’s report, FIRE has observed an increase in the adoption of free speech statements at colleges and universities inspired by the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” at the University of Chicago (better known as the “Chicago Statement”). As of May 2019, 63 institutions or faculty bodies have adopted or endorsed the Chicago Principles or a substantially similar policy statement. Thousands more need to follow!

The Chicago Statement May Take Three Different Forms

As tracked by FIRE, endorsement of the Chicago Statement may take three different forms: official adoption by a university, approval by a governing board, or endorsement by a faculty body. Additionally, to ensure campus-wide engagement with the free speech issues raised by the Chicago Statement, many institutions choose to include several other stakeholders in the process, such as the student government and other campus community members.

Backed by a strong commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom, faculty could challenge one another, their students, and the public to consider new possibilities, without fear of reprisal. Students would no longer face punishment for exercising their right to speak out freely about the issues most important to them.

Instead of learning that voicing one’s opinions invites silencing, students would be taught that spirited debate is a vital necessity for the advancement of knowledge. And they would be taught that the proper response to ideas they oppose is not censorship, but argument on the merits. That, after all, is what a university is for.

Free speech and academic freedom will not protect themselves. With public reaffirmation of the necessity of free speech on campus, the current wave of censorship that threatens the continuing excellence of U.S. higher education can be repudiated, as it should be, as a transitory moment of weakness that disrespects what our institutions of higher learning must represent.



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