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What Do Meaningful Free Expression Statements Look Like?

The role of free expression in shaping campus life and our broader society is historically a contentious one. The last century has seen many attempts to curb the “excesses” of campus protest or force out faculty who offer controversial opinions. In the past, academic leaders have reacted to these moments by codifying their support for free expression in formal statements: for example, the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom from the American Association of University Professors, the 1967 Kalven Report from the University of Chicago, or the 1974 Woodward Report from Yale University.

In the last half-decade, formal commitments to free expression statements have made a comeback. Scores of institutions have endorsed the Chicago Principles since 2015, when the University of Chicago adopted them in response to growing concern over speech suppression. Other schools have taken up the task of drafting their own statements to fit their unique needs and mission.

We surveyed the higher education landscape for a big-picture look at the various ways schools have framed free expression to meet community expectations.

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Free Expression Needs Vary by Campus

As a 2019 study of five prominent universities found, the number of students who agreed that “unpopular opinions can be expressed freely on campus” differed dramatically depending on the school polled. Liberals at one school could agree with that statement by as much as 72%, while their liberals peers elsewhere might agree by as little as 29%. The same holds for self-identified conservatives, who agreed by as much as 57% and by as little as 16% depending on the campus.

Beyond the attitudes of students, these institutions vary by size, denomination, governance structures, and whether they are public or private. An approach to free expression that works for a 3,000-student private liberal arts college is not likely to suit the five campuses of an 80,000-student public university. Not only do these schools promulgate their speech policies differently, but their campus cultures dictate distinct free expression norms.

The following three categories of free expression statement capture the different emphases and framings schools have used to tailor free expression commitments to their unique campus body.

(1) Individualistic Statements

One variety of statement rests free expression on a liberal framework, emphasizing the individual as the main ingredient in the free expression formula. Such a view is rights-focused. It holds that individuals, acting alone or in concert, have the right to voice their thoughts, so long as doing so does not create a dangerous environment or unduly tread on the rights of others.

The Chicago Principles are a model statement for the individualistic approach and are representative of this statement category. The principles begin by focusing on the autonomy of individuals within a community:

Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.

Whereas some types of free expression statements articulate community values that are part of the free expression right, an individualistic framing promotes those values as a corollary to the free-standing right of individuals to express themselves.

Values like civility and open-mindedness still have a place in the individualistic scheme, but the university’s responsibilities for free expression do not depend on those values. Instead, free expression stands on its own.

A free-standing right of expression means that a core feature of the university mission is to teach students the art of pluralistic community life. For this reason, learning how to have a conversation, not what view to hold, lies at the heart of the student experience:

Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.

To promote the university as a place of open conversation, individualistic statements carry a negative liberty sensibility. Absent a few enunciated restrictions, the university is not allowed to regulate the expression of its members.

Restrictions are specific: speech cannot break the law, defame, constitute genuine threats or harassment, or substantially invade privacy. In addition, the university may intervene when one’s free expression is being suppressed, or to enforce restrictions on the time, place, and manner of speech.

When expressions clash with one another, the individualistic response preserves to the greatest extent possible the rights of each speaker. This is accomplished by two means. First, as discussed above, the university takes on a night-watchman role by declining to endorse one position over another. Second, every side in a public conversation gets the maximum space possible to work out their differences in a way that does not “obstruct or otherwise interfere” with another’s legitimate expression.

(2) Communitarian Statements

A second approach frames free expression as a common good that members of the campus collective have a responsibility to maintain. Communitarian statements promote a specific mindset that community members should have when engaging with one another. They portray free expression as most meaningful when seen as a collective activity governed by certain norms.

Colgate University’s statement takes such an approach:

Colgate aspires to a shared commitment to learning, inquiry, and community that encourages individuals to listen and speak with care, so that all voices among us are heard. All of us should be sensitive to the positive and negative ways that we can affect one another, keeping in mind that words and deeds can help and harm; be understood and misunderstood; advance knowledge and impede it.

The emphases here are twofold: first, the community itself (“all voices”/ “all of us”) serves as the steward for free expression. And second, although members of the community have a right to free expression, that right is couched in terms of explicit values and behaviors that should be considered in tandem with expression.

In other words, while individuals may express a wide range of beliefs, the act of expression comes with additional layers of consideration. The University of Maryland Statement on Free Speech Values illustrates this point, even articulating traditionally marginalized groups of people to whom these considerations apply:

…individuals assume further responsibilities as members of the university. The campus expects each individual community member to consider the harm that may result from the use of slurs or disparaging epithets intended to malign, for example, another’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or physical or mental disability. While legal protections for free expression may sometimes supersede the values of civility and mutual respect, members of the university community should weigh these values carefully in exercising their fundamental right to free expression.

Communitarian statements share a first-order concern for the norms that influence the quality of expression, norms which entail “a shared commitment” or a “responsibility” towards certain value-laden behaviors that might change the tone of an expressive act. Sometimes, as in the case of Colgate, that commitment goes beyond common forms of expression to include the responsibility “to listen.”

Gauging the community’s values often requires many campus organs working together through a transparent process. For example, the Colgate task force responsible for writing the statement convened forums for students, faculty, and staff; the University of Maryland established a joint task force of the faculty senate and the office of the president; and at Gettysburg College, another school whose statement fits the communitarian mold, faculty and students collaborated through panels and the approval stage.

It is important to note that even though the entire community might be represented in the drafting process, the communitarian scheme (like the individualistic one) does not allow the institution to decide which speech is worthwhile or worthless, allowed or disallowed.

Except for certain restrictions, the communitarian university affirms that it would be inappropriate for the institution to interfere with the substance of debate or conversation. The university may, however, encourage a specific attitude to prevail in the community, even one that goes beyond the usual calls for civility.

(3) Legalistic Statements

Whereas private schools enjoy leeway to mold free expression culture, public institutions must comport with state and federal statutes as well as First Amendment case law. As a result, statements from public schools often position their desire to promote open exchange within a constitutional context—usually in addition to other aspects like academic freedom or an institution’s historic respect for free speech.

The Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska, for example, comes out swinging with the first sentence of their Commitment to Free Expression: “The University of Nebraska honors the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and has long dedicated itself to the free exchange of ideas.”

The statement continues:

“Freedom of speech” and “freedom of expression” refer to one’s constitutional right to articulate and express ideas and opinions, through any means, i.e. speaking, writing, or artistic expression, without fear of government retaliation, censorship, or other sanction. The University of Nebraska is a public institution of higher education, which holds dear this right, a right that is indispensable to its ability to transmit knowledge and fundamental to the University community’s pursuit to discover, explore, interpret, and question knowledge and opinions.

Such a framing stresses a public university’s obligations as a government entity to follow the law, although the institution also makes a point of endorsing those constitutional requirements.

Other statements in this category, like that of Ohio University, blend legalities with institutional history and academic tradition, which can go “beyond their constitutional significance.”

The legalistic formulation works for large, multi-campus public institutions whose culture varies across the system. Because a bespoke approach will not work for such an institution, the statement must cover the bare bones of free expression and leave its subparts the task of matching those obligations to cultural specifics.

Different Means to the Same End

While each type of free expression statement conveys the same basic affirmation of open inquiry and robust exchange, the ways in which that message is presented matters. Articulation and presentation can shape how members of a campus community accept free expression, or at the very least understand it. Statements are an opportunity for the institution to explain what free expression is and outline its importance to their academic mission.

Additionally, the specific requirements and definitions written into these statements hold the college or university accountable to itself.

Statements are not the end point of an institution’s commitment to open inquiry. They serve as the touchpoint for free expression strategy, student affairs initiatives, or faculty research. Tailoring these statements to the campus culture helps free expression—and the campus community—to thrive.

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