Trustees | Freedom of Expression

The Constitution, free speech and college campuses

WASHINGTON TIMES   |  October 25, 2017 by Michael B. Poliakoff

It might have been too much to hope that after the tumultuous 2016 election, our nation’s discourse would simmer down and that cooler heads would prevail. Of course, political rhetoric will ebb and flow with the election cycle, but nearly a year into a new administration, it’s clear that something changed irrevocably in the expression and exchange of ideas in the political arena.

The decline in our nation’s discourse has been visible for some time to those who pay attention to higher education. Colleges and universities across the country incubated Orwellian speech policies and bias response teams. Perhaps well-intentioned, these policies fail to create a sense of unity and also compromise the quality of dialogue on campus. University administrators allow students to believe that they don’t have to listen to contrary opinions; this intolerance for divergent viewpoints now manifests itself in demonstrations on and off campus that rapidly deteriorate into violence.

Americans should always be mindful that universities are marketplaces for ideas and that colleges and universities need to habituate students to open-minded exchange. Instead, trigger warnings appear on class syllabi, and too many campus administrators carve out safe spaces at the request of the best and brightest of the next generation. American college students don’t seem to grasp the alarming fact that these policies abridge their own freedoms and set precedents that can be used against them, should the administration undergo a change of leadership or face pressure from outside groups.

It would advance civic virtue if the very institutions entrusted to educate these students would offer a true education in U.S. history. What Will They Learn?, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s (ACTA) annual report of college general education requirements, found that of over 1,100 colleges surveyed, only 18 percent required students to take a foundational course in U.S. history or government. In order to fulfill their missions of ensuring that students become well-informed citizens, colleges must prepare graduates who understand the structure, institutions, and laws of the U.S. system of governance.

But survey after survey shows that many college graduates don’t have a firm grasp of these concepts. In 2015, a GFK survey commissioned by ACTA found, shockingly, that 10 percent of college graduates believe Judge Judy sits on the Supreme Court. Less humorous was the 46 percent of graduates who didn’t know the election cycles and term lengths for members of Congress. Right before last year’s election, 13 percent of graduates couldn’t define the electoral college. And earlier this year, the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of millennials wouldn’t object to limiting speech that could be offensive to minorities.

This disregard for constitutional history and civic education diminishes colleges as places where the American tradition of free expression and open discourse flourishes. The Supreme Court has consistently held that controversial speech is protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Exposure to cases like Brandenburg v. Ohio or National Socialist Party v. Skokie might reduce the overwhelming number of campus scandals involving protected speech.

In an ironic turn of events, University of California, Berkeley — the birthplace of the free speech movement in the 1960s — has become a stage for skirmishes between politically divergent parties. Over a period of three months, the university canceled three scheduled speeches to be given by polarizing figures Milo Yiannopoulos, David Horowitz and Ann Coulter due to safety concerns. That is ultimately a feeble and unacceptable excuse. The aggressive protests of various student groups should not overrule the imperative of academic freedom and intellectual diversity, even admitting what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called, “the thought we hate,” for discussion and debate.

Evergreen State College was shut down for days after biology professor Bret Weinstein objected to a social justice-oriented event that encouraged white people to stay off campus. For this, he was accused of supporting white supremacy and made the target of protests. Evergreen’s campus security alerted Professor Weinstein that they could not guarantee his safety, forcing him to teach his class off campus.

Hope for the future of free speech in higher education still remains. In this time of increasing political tension, there are individuals and institutions that continue to defend the First Amendment on college campuses. In fact, a few outstanding university leaders have staunchly committed to free expression and to fostering an understanding of these principles.

The University of Chicago’s Statement on Principles of Free Expression has become the gold standard for cultivating free expression and academic freedom on campuses. Under the leadership of President Robert J. Zimmer, the University of Chicago passed this resolution to preserve intellectual diversity and academic freedom. Many more institutions — including Purdue University, Claremont McKenna College and Princeton University — have followed suit and endorsed the Chicago Principles in similar statements. Purdue took an extra step and included workshops on free speech as part of its freshman orientation program.

Let us praise universities that teach students about their rights and responsibilities as citizens and which work to impart civic knowledge. Let us acknowledge universities that follow the examples set by the University of Chicago and Purdue. College is where students become citizens and leaders: Only an improved culture of dissent and cultivating vigorous discussion and debate on campus will advance our national discourse and enhance the lives of future generations.


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.

Discover More