September 26, 2023 – Free Speech & Peace

What we’re reading: Restoring free speech on college campuses


College and university students are back on campus. Their dorms, classrooms, and quads are filled with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs. Engaging with this multitude of experiences should help students develop the intellectual and social muscles they will need to tackle society’s most pressing problems.

But, according to the latest College Free Speech Rankings from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, students are not just failing in this regard — they are increasingly likely to reject this type of learning.

The survey found:

  • Attempts to silence people who students regard as unacceptable or offensive succeed 81 percent of the time at the five schools at the bottom of FIRE’s rankings.
  • Up to 72 percent of students oppose allowing a conservative speaker on campus.
  • Up to 43 percent of students oppose allowing a liberal speaker on campus.

Recent research from the Knight Foundation drew similar conclusions. It found the percentage of students saying speech rights are secure on their campuses is falling year after year.

Which is why we at CKF were excited to read about leaders of 13 colleges who recently announced an initiative to promote openness on their campuses. 

Creating a culture of openness on campus

The Campus Call for Free Expression brings together college presidents committed to ensuring students are well-informed, productively engaged, and committed citizens. 

The 13 colleges and universities that have joined have pledged to model the relevant behaviors, skills, and practices needed to secure it. They aim to develop students who:

  • Pursue knowledge beyond their comfort zone, challenging existing beliefs and assumptions;
  • Reach informed decisions based on evidence and reasoned analysis;
  • Develop a deeper understanding of self and one’s own values while gaining respect, empathy, and appreciation for those with differing values and views;
  • Feel a sense of civic responsibility, advocate for positive change, and contribute meaningfully to their community; and
  • Express ideas freely but recognize that doing so does not guarantee approval or immunity from consequences.

Bottom-up solutions will help colleges, universities become free speech leaders 

Participation in Campus Call will look different for each institution. College and university leaders will have the flexibility to create programs that respond to their unique student body. 

Duke University is hosting a summer seminar for faculty that will include and best practices for effectively promoting civic discussion of sensitive topics in the classroom, for example. Cornell University students and faculty will come together to engage with topics of free expression and academic freedom through events and activities while James Madison University will partner with the Bipartisan Policy Center to offer free expression training for every incoming first year and transfer student.

These efforts will provide bottom-up models other colleges and universities can take inspiration from as they work to restore openness and free speech on campus.

For more insight into how free speech can create diverse, inclusive environments on campus, read this column by Stand Together Vice President for Free Speech and Sarah Cross. Learn more about CKF’s work to foster openness on campus and across the country here.