Trustees | Freedom of Expression

No consensus on how to handle free speech on campuses

EDUCATION DIVE   |  June 19, 2018 by James Paterson

Dive Brief:

  • A lawsuit supported by the U.S. Justice Department against the University of Michigan has drawn fire from the institution, which disputes claims that its “bias response team” was designed to investigate or discipline offending students, and denies the students filing the suit could have been restricted from expressing their views on campus, according to Inside Higher Education.
  • The lawsuit brought by Speech First, a group formed in February that hopes to loosen restrictions on campus free speech, was filed on behalf of three students who say they were kept from discussing conservative topics. The Trump administration filed a statement of interest in the case, which lends support.
  • The university says it does not restrict or harass any students presenting their views and, in fact, have allowed speakers such as conservative Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart editor, to visit campus. In its response to the suit, the institution said it presented “a false caricature” of its rules on free expression.

Dive Insight:

Politico reports that Speech First President Nicole Neily said the group has 1,000 members paying $5 each in dues, and intends to sue at least three other universities this year. The publication quoted her as saying the organization intends to “flood the zone”. It is working with the law firm that recently sued Harvard University over its affirmative action program.

On other fronts, it appeared during a hearing on campus free speech last fall that Congress would not push for federal rules on the issue, but there has been action in state legislatures, in Wisconsin, specifically, where student protests prompted state legislators to develop a bill that would establish free speech protection and punishment for offenders. By mid-May, nine states had passed campus free speech legislation, and 16 others had it under consideration, according to Campus Reform, which advocates for such action.

A survey by Gallup showed that 70% of students want an“open learning environment” rather than a “positive” one that limits speech and more than half believe that “promoting an inclusive society” is extremely important, but 56% also believe that “protecting free speech rights” is.

A recently published report from The American Council of Trustees and Alumni supports the use by 34 colleges of the “Chicago Principles”, but also been criticized for appealing to stereotypes of faculty members and administrators without allowing for their ability to be open minded despite their political beliefs.


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