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How college leaders can overcome the current campus crisis

It鈥檚 not enough to say that free speech is important. Now is the time for colleges and universities to put words into action.
George Washington University Police officers tussle with protesters who tried to raise the Palestinian flag on the campus flagpole

Andrew Leyden / Shutterstock.com

George Washington University Police officers tussle with protesters who tried to raise the Palestinian flag on the campus flagpole on May 2, 2024.

Ask just about any American college administrator and they'll tell you: This past semester was one of the most chaotic on record.

College leadership can enjoy a momentary sigh of relief for surviving the semester marked by post-October 7 , ,  and free speech controversies. But without real reform, the same problems will be waiting for them in the fall: demands to censor protected speech, questions about what is and isn鈥檛 protected expression on campus, and increased concerns about student safety amid campus protests.

When facing protest-related challenges, some administrators might be inclined to create policies that further restrict expression. This must be resisted at all costs. The solution must never be censorship but a recommitment to the principles of free expression that have long been the lifeblood of academia.

It is the duty of college leaders to ensure students and faculty understand and respect First Amendment rights and responsibilities. In doing so, they establish a baseline from which they can turn controversy into teachable moments rather than turning to censorship. 

The path forward is simple: Craft policies that protect free speech, do not overburden campus expression with oppressive regulations, teach free expression from day one, and commit to making free speech an institutional value before controversy ever arises.

Four steps to protect free speech on campus

First thing鈥檚 first: Colleges and universities must ensure their policies safeguard expression rather than stifle it. While this sounds simple, 85% of America鈥檚 four-year institutions either clearly and substantially restrict free speech or impose vague regulations on expression. Worse yet, more than 1 in 5 students reported that their college administration鈥檚 stance on free speech on campus is not clear.

As university leadership reviews and solidifies existing policies, it must make those policies as clear and concise as possible. Too often schools attempt to regulate events based on content or viewpoint or place other unreasonable burdens on public expression.

Yes, universities may enforce  restrictions to ensure expressive activity does not infringe on teaching and learning on campus, but any such restriction must be content- and viewpoint-neutral. In other words, it must be carefully crafted to guarantee faculty and students are able to teach and learn free from substantial interruption while providing alternative options for individuals to express themselves on campus.

We cannot allow illiberal activity to be an excuse to ignore basic First Amendment principles. Now is the time to correct course and ensure these institutions continue to grow as beacons of intellectual exploration and human progress.

We鈥檝e already seen calls from legislators demanding viewpoint-based restrictions on campus speech. For example, the federal  would require the U.S. Department of Education to use a definition of anti-Semitism that is vague, overbroad, and includes criticism of the Israeli government.

Mandating a definition of this nature would not help schools address discrimination, but it would pressure institutions to investigate and censor speech that falls under such a definition 鈥 even when those statements are protected by the First Amendment. Similar overbroad policies have recently been used to suppress free speech in places like the University of Texas at San Antonio, where an administrator allegedly told protesters that they cannot say 鈥淶ionism鈥 because it qualifies as 鈥渁ntisemitic hate speech.鈥

蜜桃社

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Second, universities must not strangle free speech with red tape. Institutions like  mandate that students reserve an area multiple days before protesting or passing out pamphlets and brochures. These unnecessary hurdles chill speech by limiting students鈥 ability to express themselves in the moment or overburdening students to the point they may choose not to express themselves at all.

Third, we must educate incoming students on the principles of free speech from day one. Unfortunately, colleges today cannot expect students to arrive on campus with knowledge about the boundaries of free speech and academic freedom. For instance, more than a quarter of students said that using violence to stop a campus speech is acceptable to some degree, according to 蜜桃社鈥檚 College Free Speech Rankings. Another 45% said that students blocking other students from attending a speech is at least 鈥渞arely鈥 acceptable. These illiberal forms of mob censorship create environments in which students become afraid to speak up.

Orientation is the perfect time to educate students on the role of free speech on campus, the limits of First Amendment protections, and how students can legally exercise their freedom. From this foundation, students can begin their educational journey without censoring themselves for fear of overstepping the boundaries of protected expression.

Finally, colleges must cultivate an environment where students and faculty are free to push the boundaries of human understanding and challenge themselves and established orthodoxies.

Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University lit up at night

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Some of the country鈥檚 premier institutions are already rising to that challenge. Within the past two weeks, , , and  have taken proactive steps by committing to institutional neutrality, promising to refrain from issuing statements on political or social issues that do not impact core operations of the school. These declarations affirm the schools鈥 dedication to providing a platform where students and faculty can engage in debates on contemporary issues, free from institutional bias or commentary.

During the spring semester, we witnessed peaceful protests, civil disobedience, violence, and arrests on our nation鈥檚 campuses. This is not the first time we鈥檝e seen such turmoil on campus, and it probably won鈥檛 be the last time. We cannot allow illiberal activity to be an excuse to ignore basic First Amendment principles. Now is the time to correct course and ensure these institutions continue to grow as beacons of intellectual exploration and human progress.

FIRE is happy to work one-on-one with university administrators to reform the speech climate on your campus 鈥 free of charge. Just email us at speechcodes@thefire.org.

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