Free Expression and the Task of American Colleges and Universities
There are certain truths of American political life that antedate even the Founding and are as important for our age as they were for ages past. Among these are that demagogues hold most sway over the ignorant, that a free people must be an informed people, and that representative democracy requires widespread education to flourish. A self-governing people cannot be a foolish, deluded, or benighted people, else it will soon lose its liberty. For these reasons, Americans must become passionate learners, fearless truth-seekers, and searching critics in order to take up the responsibilities of citizenship and render themselves immune to the manipulations of opportunists and timeservers.
Universities are indispensable for a free and prosperous society. They are the engine that drives both scientific and social progress. They educate students for career and responsible citizenship and habituate them to self-discovery and the pursuit of truth. Their mission depends on a campus culture of free expression and intellectual diversity. Unless teachers, students, and researchers can inquire and speak freely and fearlessly, innovation will stall, questions will be left unasked and unanswered, and students will be ill-prepared for life, career, community, and citizenship.
But we learn in story after story, year upon year, that colleges and universities have lost their way. Instead of encouraging students to explore different lines of intellectual inquiry and equipping them for the rough-and-tumble of a vibrant democracy, too many institutions seem to be training them for lives as informers, inquisitors, and isolated, distrustful individuals. Rather than teaching students how to engage productively with challenging new ideas, far too many colleges and universities build cozy bubbles in which only comfortable orthodoxies are permitted. They foster large, expensive bureaucracies to police infractions of vague (and often extralegal, if not outright illegal) rules against expressing ideas that someone might find offensive.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) seeks to hold American colleges and universities accountable to their missions. Progress depends on the freedom to pursue new ideas. Self-discovery requires uninhibited exploration of life’s timeless questions. Education for citizenship in a liberal democratic republic necessarily involves opening ourselves to all the perspectives we might encounter in the community at large, even silly and dangerous ones, so that we are prepared to live and negotiate with all our fellow citizens. All of this requires free expression, which is why the United States Supreme Court has so roundly affirmed, protected, and over time, extended our rights to that core freedom. American universities, of all institutions, should not be the ones to curtail it.
ACTA now provides a blueprint to help higher education regain and live by this core principle. The ACTA Gold Standard for Freedom of Expression provides clear guidance for institutions to create a culture of free thought on their campuses. Steps ranging from adopting new institutional guidelines, to creating new on-campus initiatives, to eliminating abusive and unconstitutional rules can help colleges and universities reclaim their place as leaders within our liberal democracy.
For more information, visit our Campus Freedom Initiative page here.