ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Guarding the Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Hear

A Guide for Higher Education Trustees

October 2018 by Joyce Lee Malcolm

ACTA's new guide for higher education trustees, Guarding the Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Hear by Professor Joyce Lee Malcolm of the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, provides best practices to boards of trustees for securing intellectual freedom on the American college campus. It couldn't have come a moment too soon. Since 2016 a growing number of students have indicated that hateful speech—despite its legal protections—should be prohibited. And in a recent Gallup/Knight Foundation report, 53% of students surveyed believe that diversity is more important than free speech. The guide informs trustees on the legal and ethical norms regarding the "heckler's veto" and disinvitations of controversial speakers and offers clear solutions on how to cultivate a campus climate that encourages free expression.


SELECTED FINDINGS

INTRODUCTION:

Freedom of speech, protected by our Constitution, has long been a vital component of political, social, and intellectual life in our country. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has dedicated itself for more than 23 years to working with trustees to ensure that our nation’s colleges and universities preserve this essential freedom on campus.

But this freedom is under attack on a disturbingly large number of our nation’s campuses. The “heckler’s veto,” by which loud and sometimes violent protests prevent a speaker from delivering a lecture or participating on a panel, is one particularly obnoxious form of silencing free speech. Equally damaging and dangerous are the campaigns to discourage an invited speaker from coming to campus or to coerce a “disinvitation” of the invited guest. By understanding how and why these disruptions happen, as well as recognizing their potential to occur on virtually any campus, boards of trustees can develop policies to mitigate the risk of incidents that could readily bring physical damage and very negative public attention to their institutions.

ACTA has long emphasized how essential boards of trustees are in establishing the principles and upholding the laws protecting free speech and free assembly at colleges and universities. In Governance for a New Era: A Blueprint for Higher Education Trustees, Benno Schmidt, chairman of the Governance for a New Era® project and Yale University president emeritus, stated: “Academic freedom is the single most important value informing the academic enterprise, and governance for a new era requires trustees to protect it . . . At the same time, trustees should adopt policies that maintain institutional neutrality and distance from political fashion and pressure."1

If our guarantee of free speech is to be more than a “parchment barrier,” all of us, particularly those in positions of authority, must have the courage to allow speakers whose ideas are unpopular to be heard.

This brochure and its accompanying wallet-size card, “Protecting Free Speech on Campus: 10 Questions Trustees Should Ask,” are the work of Professor Joyce Lee Malcolm in collaboration with ACTA. Dr. Malcolm is the Patrick Henry Professor of Constitutional Law and the Second Amendment at the Antonin Scalia Law School of George Mason University, and a member of ACTA’s Council of Scholars. ACTA has designed these brief texts for boards of trustees with three primary aims: 1) To educate trustees about the legal and ethical norms that make the practices of the “heckler’s veto” and disinvitations inherently problematic; 2) To prompt self-scrutiny and preparedness by outlining key questions boards of trustees and others should be asking; and 3) To offer practical and clear guidelines to help trustees cultivate a campus climate where free speech can flourish.

  1. Benno C. Schmidt, Governance for a New Era: A Blueprint for Higher Education Trustees, (Washington, DC: American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 2014), 7–8, https://www.goacta.org/publications/governance_for_a_new_era.