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What We’re Reading: February 2024

In this month’s spotlight, legislatures censoring colleges and colleges censoring students: tracking state anti-diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) measures and university restrictions on free expression. Plus: three professors and a former college president weigh in with advice for colleges embattled in free expression controversies.

Campus Happenings

Should Departments Make Political Statements?
Johanna Alonso and Sara Weissman | Inside Higher Ed | January 26, 2024
The University of California Board of Regents met to discuss whether departments and campus centers should be allowed to publish statements on social issues “via official channels of communication.” Supporters of the move say that messages on departmental websites may be mistakenly considered representative of every department member or the whole university; critics say that prohibiting statements curtails academic freedom. The proposal has been tabled until the next meeting in March.

American University Bans Indoor Protests
Jessica Blake | Inside Higher Ed | February 1, 2024
American University President Sylvia Burwell announced that the university has banned all indoor protests in a recent letter to the campus. The letter states that the decision was made in response to “recent events and incidents on campus [that] have made Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcome.” The university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors criticized the decision, arguing that it will have “the effect of suppressing and chilling expression.”

Law Schools Must Adopt Free Speech Policies to Maintain ABA Accreditation
Lexi Lonas | The Hill | February 6, 2024
The American Bar Association approved a new accreditation policy that extends free speech protections to all law students, staff, and faculty. The new standard requires law schools to adopt written policies that protect “robust debate, demonstrations or protests” and prohibit conduct that interrupts free speech.

Columbia Limited Campus Protests, So Students Took to the Streets
Sharon Otterman and Olivia Bensimon | New York Times | February 6, 2024
Under pressure to crack down on antisemitism, Columbia University has sought to limit campus demonstrations, leading to clashes between pro-Palestinian protestors and police. These latest tensions come on the heels of the launch of the Columbia Academic Freedom Council by over 70 faculty and the council’s adoption of the “Statement of Responsibilities,” which calls for protecting academic freedom, encouraging healthy civil discourse, and committing to institutional neutrality.

State and Federal

DEI Legislation Tracker
Chronicle Staff | The Chronicle of Higher Education
With most state legislatures currently in session, The Chronicle of Higher Education is tracking 73 bills across 26 states and in Congress that target DEI initiatives on college and university campuses. In some states, college presidents and higher-education officials are pushing back against anti-DEI legislation.

Op-eds and Thought Pieces

College Is All About Curiosity. And That Requires Free Speech.
Stephen L. Carter | The New York Times | January 24, 2024
Yale Law School professor Stephen L. Carter argues that the purpose of higher education is not simply to impart knowledge; the classroom is “first and foremost, a place to train young minds toward a yearning for knowledge and a taste for argument.” Drawing a contrast between the academic freedom on college campuses during the 1960s and 1970s and today’s expectation of ideological conformity, Carter contends that the “educational process has failed.”

The Future of Academic Freedom
Jeannie Suk Gersen | The New Yorker | January 27, 2024
Harvard Law School professor and founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance Jeannie Suk Gersen assesses the phenomenon of censorship on college campuses: students’ objection to “rigorous exchanges on difficult topics” causes faculty to fear being misunderstood, accused, or fired. Gersen warns that when universities block speech to demonstrate solidarity with a marginalized group, they undermine academic freedom and open inquiry.

A Historian’s Case for Protecting Even Offensive Speech on Campus
James C. Cobb | TIME Magazine | February 8, 2024
History professor James C. Cobb examines historian C. Vann Woodward’s legacy as an ardent defender of free speech and suggests it holds relevant lessons for today’s college administrators. As a key member of the committee that drafted Yale University’s “forceful” free speech policy in 1975, Woodward argued that the benefits of free speech outweigh any temporary pains.

Let’s Talk, Not Censor: What Colleges and Legislators Get Wrong About Free Speech
José Antonio Bowen | The Baltimore Sun | February 8, 2024
Former college president José Antonio Bowen writes that “recent events have made it clear that more dialogue and discomfort is needed in America.” Bowen argues that legislation targeting DEI on college campuses in response to censorship of conservative voices is just another example of limiting free speech. He promotes a “both/and” approach to campus dialogue, noting that “safety and free speech are a tension to manage, not absolutes.”

Big Read

2024 College Free Speech Rankings: What Is the State of Free Speech on America’s College Campuses?
S.T. Stephens | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression
The fourth annual FIRE and College Pulse report on free speech found that 85% of colleges place “clear and substantial restrictions on protected speech.” About a quarter of students reported that they often self-censor, and nearly half said that “blocking students from attending a speech is acceptable to some degree.”

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