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Free Speech on Campus: How Universities Can Communicate Our Policies and Values

Vigils, marches, rallies, demonstrations, protests, counterprotests—over the past few years, our campuses have seen them all. But in the 2020–21 academic year, the COVID-19 pandemic dampened these events significantly. Now, as campuses prepare for a fall semester that looks much more like “normal,” our conversations—which rightly focus on vaccinations, social distancing, masks, and the well-being of students and faculty—should also explore updates to our practices and policies regarding free speech and campus activism.

Many universities do not effectively communicate either their policies related to free speech or the values that animate those policies, leaving students, faculty, and staff in the dark. I recently reviewed the websites of all 131 R1 universities, which Carnegie classifies as doctoral universities with very high research activity, to examine universities’ publicly available statements and policies about free speech on campus. Nearly all of the websites link to campus events, faculty scholarship, and news stories—by far the most common results of my search. However, there is great variation in how the universities communicate about their unique free speech policies and whether institutions or senior leaders express a position.

At one end of the spectrum are the roughly 10 percent of institutions that do not display any easily accessible information regarding institutional policies or position statements on free speech. At the other end are a small number of institutions with comprehensive landing pages about free speech that typically summarize policies, state institutional values and positions, and link to relevant resources from across the university. The middle of this continuum contains everything from institutions with a single policy or position statement to those with a handful of policies or statements dispersed across the website. Other institutions display statements by former presidents, or multiple statements from current leaders, but have few policies, many broken links, and no dedicated landing page.                                                                                                

I imagine that a dearth of communication does not align with many universities’ self-perception about how effectively and actively they communicate about free speech. With that in mind, I offer five practical suggestions for universities that want to accurately and transparently convey their policies and values about free speech.  

1. Audit your website for resources on free speech.

I invite institutions to use online tools, including the search engine embedded in their own website, to search for “freedom of speech,” “free speech on campus,” “free expression,” and similar phrases. How easy (or difficult) is it to find information about policies and institutional positions? Must users dig for it? Does the website display events, research, and external documents? Do all of the relevant links still work? Sometimes, these resources exist but a low-quality search engine can limit access. In these cases, updates to the system should be considered.

2. Gather and examine your institutional policies and position statements.

It is important to collect your institution’s policies and position statements wherever they are available. Many campuses have an umbrella policy regarding free speech on campus or specific policies about invited speakers, for example. Other institutions have free speech policies in student and faculty handbooks. Some policies limit the time, place, and manner of protected speech. Universities might also have position statements or values statements that can guide the creation and implementation of new policies. Additionally, although private colleges and universities are not bound by the First Amendment, many choose to embrace freedom of speech in their own policies and positions. Finally, in some states (such as North Carolina), the board of regents or state legislature has policies governing free speech on campuses.

3. Create a free speech “landing page” that collects relevant policies, statements, practices, and resources.

When done well, landing pages are a wonderful resource for students, faculty, and staff to gather relevant information in one place. At the University of California–Davis, information about student free speech is organized into three categories on its landing page: “Learn,” which provides information about the First Amendment, university policies, and university position statements; “Act,” which discusses ways individuals can exercise free speech, engage in protests, and act in support of others; and “Get Support,” which provides information about university resources that can support those who may have been the targets of harmful speech. Other examples of similarly thorough landing pages with different approaches can be found at the University of Missouri and the University of Virginia

A landing page also allows an institution to communicate thought leadership about free speech and inclusion. Colorado State University’s explores the complex intersection of free speech and inclusion and discusses the university’s strong commitment to both. The University of Tennessee’s includes the “Principles of Civility and Community” to address the complex, multi-faceted nature of campus free speech controversies.   

After a university creates a landing page for its free speech policies and positions, the page should be reevaluated annually to identify broken links, assess whether information remains current, and add new content as needed. 

4. Share official statements from senior campus leaders.

If the current university president or provost has not issued an extensive statement about free speech on campus or delivered remarks on the topic at a public event, it is worth suggesting that they do so. University leaders can speak about institutional values and, by doing so, help to clarify and refine those values. For example, university leaders are increasingly vocal about antiracism and federal policies that target undocumented students or create great hardships for international students. 

5. Engage students, faculty, and staff proactively in discussions about free speech.

Tensions often run high when campus free speech controversies emerge. Productive conversations about free speech and inclusion among students, faculty, and staff before a controversy occurs can position a campus to navigate such situations, especially if the stakeholders are able to come to a consensus around the institution’s values and related policies.

Free speech, academic freedom, and inclusion are at the core of the modern university’s mission. Students, faculty, and staff deserve ready access to their institution’s positions regarding these values and the policies that bring these values to life.

Kristine L. Bowman is associate dean for academic and student affairs and professor of law and education policy at Michigan State University.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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