It’s spring. Millions of high school students have decided if, and where, they will go to college. These students are entering academia as attacks on academic freedom are increasing. Learning how to tackle difficult issues and preserve free speech on college campuses will be as important to students’ success as learning good study habits. And it will be important for preserving dialogue and openness in all types of academic institutions, and society.
As Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) Executive Director Ryan Stowers told the Philanthropy Roundtable, in the last five years attacks on academic freedom “have escalated to a level you wouldn’t have expected.” Stowers said, “That’s a reflection of increased intolerance in the exchange of ideas elsewhere in society. But universities are meant to be above this.”
University and college campuses are supposed to be places where the free exchange of ideas, even controversial ones, is welcome.
How to preserve on college campuses
Scholars and other commentators agree exploring tough questions is an essential part of campus life. And they agree schools must preserve free speech on college campuses — even if some speech is offensive.
Kenneth Stern, director of Bard College’s Center for the Study of Hate, told Higher Ed Dive “[Y]ou’re not going to stop people from having political disagreements about hot button issues.” Rather than “thinking about what type of speech am I not going to allow,” Stern said administrators should educate students about the importance of free speech and engage with students and faculty to bring other perspectives into difficult conversations.
After students at the University of Pittsburgh tried to block certain speakers from participating in a campus forum — and state lawmakers tried to pressure campus administrators to shut down the student groups who had invited those speakers — Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) Senior Program Officer Zach Greenberg told the Pittsburgh Gazette, “Under the First Amendment, [public] universities must allow the widest array of viewpoints … even ones that are offensive and controversial.”
An article published by the American Association of College and Universities explains how groups like FIRE and Interfaith America preserve free speech on college campuses and provide opportunities for students to practice civil debate. Sara Rose, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, told students “the best way” to counter views they do not agree with is to debate — to “show up and speak out” — not shut out.
Scholars are not the only ones who are speaking up. The Washington Post sprang to the defense of Stanford University law school Dean Jenny Martinez after she defended a federal judge’s right to speak at the school.
Concerns about attacks on academic freedom are widespread
Students also have taken administrators to task for attacks on academic freedom. As the Texas Tribune reported, aided by FIRE, an LGBTQIA+ student group at West Texas A&M University filed a First Amendment lawsuit after the university’s president canceled a campus drag show.
Concerns about how to preserve free speech on college campuses know no political party. According to a report released by FIRE earlier this year, 40 percent of self-identified liberal faculty are afraid of losing their jobs or reputations due to their speech.
The greatest advances in human progress — personal, social, and scientific — flow from our ability to freely and productively exchange ideas and consider a diverse range of perspectives. Read more about how CKF works with its partners to defend campus civil liberties.