The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Preventing the Next Middlebury

March 21, 2017

Threats to free speech have been all over the news in the world of higher education. Disinvitations, no-platforming and shouting down speakers have become all too frequent, a tragic “new normal” at too many colleges and universities during these politically contentious times.

Fortunately, efforts are underway to fight back. Sarah Brown, a journalist for the Chronicle of Higher Education, published an in-depth report this week, looking at the important work the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has done to defend free expression in higher education. A close partner to ACTA, FIRE has been on the frontlines as a First Amendment watchdog pushing back when colleges and universities abridge free speech, debate, and academic freedom on campus.

In the aftermath of the shameful treatment of Charles Murray at Middlebury College and the assault of faculty member Allison Stanger by protesting students, scholars and commentators across the political spectrum are united in revulsion. Professors Cornel West and Robert George, Princeton University’s model of civil, intellectual discourse across political difference, organized a statement signed by hundreds in defense of “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression.”

Trustees and concerned alumni groups, too, have a role to play in safeguarding free expression. Here are three strategies governing boards can use to defend free speech and promote a healthy and open campus discourse:

  • Be proactive in promoting viewpoint diversity, free speech and dialogue. Universities are at their best when they embody the values of free inquiry and open dialogue. Establish clear First Amendment policies governing free speech on campus and ensure that they are highly-publicized and observed.
  • Look to national best practices concerning free expression. The Chicago Principles of freedom of expression, adopted by a growing list of institutions including Purdue, Princeton, and the University of Wisconsin, provide a clear set of guidelines for safeguarding freedom of speech and expression on campus. Universities can incorporate these principles into orientation materials and student and faculty codes of conduct.
  • Have a plan in place for protests and disruptions. Your institution’s campus could be the next Berkeley or Middlebury. Review your faculty and student conduct policies and ensure you have a clear plan to coordinate security, logistics, and publicity when controversial speakers are invited to campus. Institutions need to define clearly the boundaries between protest and disruption, establish severe sanctions for heckling invited speakers or preventing others from attending scheduled events, and enforce those sanctions.

UPDATE (4/13/17) : A spokesperson for Middlebury College contacted ACTA to provide several updates:

  • The College’s investigation has identified several dozen individuals it believes may be subject to disciplinary procedures under the student handbook policies. More than 20 students have received and accepted sanctions for their actions on March 2. The investigation and disciplinary process continues and the College hopes to complete the work by end of the academic year in May. 
  • The College acknowledged receipt of a letter from ACTA delivered to the Middlebury College Board of Trustees urging them to adopt the Chicago Principles of Free Expression.
  • More than 100 Middlebury faculty have signed a Statement of Principles in support of free inquiry.

ACTA will continue to monitor these developments.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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