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  • Corey Lee Wilson

What Can Be Done to Restore Freedom of Speech on Campus?

A student or faculty member can be a tremendously effective advocate for change when he or she is aware of expressive rights and is willing to engage administrators in defense of them. Public exposure is also critical to defeating speech codes since universities are often unwilling to defend their speech codes in the face of public criticism.

Unconstitutional policies also can be defeated in court, especially at public universities, where speech codes have been struck down in federal courts across the country. Many more such policies have been revised in favor of free speech as the result of legal settlements.

Any speech code in force at a public university is vulnerable to a constitutional challenge. Moreover, as speech codes are consistently defeated in court, administrators cannot credibly argue that they are unaware of the law, which means that they may be held personally liable when they are responsible for their schools’ violations of constitutional rights.

In solidarity, the Heterodox Academy (HxA) has designed a tool to provide good data on these questions. Their Campus Expression Survey (CES) is easy to administer, and it will give you a diagnosis, an X-ray, of what’s going on. Such data will help teachers and administrators to design effective interventions — for example, asking all students and faculty to participate in the OpenMind Platform.

The suppression of free speech at institutions of higher education is a matter of great national concern. However, by working together with universities to revise restrictive speech codes and to reaffirm commitments to free expression, we can continue to stride toward campuses that truly embody the “marketplace of ideas” that such institutions must be in our society.

Adopting the Chicago Statement

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) quickly endorsed the Chicago Statement in 2014 because it embodies the principles that FIRE defends every day. The statement is also an important reflection of how the principles of free speech are essential to the very purpose of a university. Since its release, FIRE has been working with colleges and universities across the country to adopt their own version of the Chicago Statement, in order to combat censorship on campus, protect academic freedom, and the free speech rights of students and professors.

All colleges that are seriously committed to free inquiry and robust debate should consider adopting a version of the Chicago Statement. In doing so, the college not only reaffirms its core purpose as a place for discourse and debate, but also encourages the campus community to engage in such expression. By actively prioritizing free speech in this manner, universities can outline a set of principles that will become the hallmark of the community they aspire to build.

As eloquently described in the Chicago Statement, “fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.” That is the type of campus community FIRE and HxA hope all colleges will aim to cultivate.

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 latest 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.



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