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What We’re Reading: January 2020

Our colleges and universities are unique ecosystems where students are challenged, stressed, and molded into thoughtful and measured citizens capable of taking on society’s big challenges. However, several of this month’s readings consider instances where some of our venerated institutions are falling short: chilled speech, self-censorship, and overly broad policies. Addressing these issues should begin by recommitting to a strong campus culture, one where students and faculty are free to explore ideas—even controversial ones—respectfully and thoughtfully.

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Campus Happenings

Half in U.S. Now Consider College Education Very Important
Stephanie Marken | Gallup | December 12, 2019

Only about 50% of Americans consider college “very important,” down from 70% seven years ago. “The viability of higher education has been up against the twin challenges of heightened scrutiny of its return on investment and heightened political criticism from conservatives in the U.S. This year, the ‘Varsity Blues’ scandal added new fuel to questions about the fairness of access to higher education.” 18 to 29-year-olds value higher education less than any other age group.

Committee Report on the Garland Hall Sit-In
Fact-Finding Committee | Johns Hopkins Homewood Faculty Assembly | December 18, 2019

On April 3, 2019, students at Johns Hopkins University began a sit-in that lasted 35 days. They protested the proposed creation of a campus police force and the University’s contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Last month, a faculty committee published its review of those events. Among the findings: inconsistent enforcement of free expression policy led to clashes between administrators and students.

Speech First, Inc. v. Wintersteen et al.
Speech First, Inc. | U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa | January 2, 2020

On behalf of its student members at Iowa State University, Speech First, Inc. filed a lawsuit against Iowa State University administrators for school regulations “designed to restrain, deter, suppress, and punish speech.” The suit challenges three policies as unconstitutional: the Campus Climate Reporting System, the ban against using school email to campaign for political candidates and ballot measures, and restricting sidewalk chalking only to registered student groups.

State and Federal Policies

Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism
President Donald J. Trump | The White House | December 11, 2019

President Trump’s executive order instructs departments and agencies that anti-Semitism may violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and to consider the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism. The order would bear on the Department of Education’s enforcement of Title VI at public and private higher education institutions. While anti-Semitism on campuses and in American society is a serious and increasing problem, FIRE and the ACLU note that the order risks enjoining colleges to limit constitutionally protected speech. The nonpartisan American Council of Trustees and Alumni noted these concerns but also the order’s potential to encourage schools better to protect students against anti-Semitism.

Op-eds and Think Pieces

Was This the Decade We Hit Peak Free Speech?
Jesse Walker | Reason | December 16, 2019

“If by ‘free speech’ you mean the capacity and willingness to speak, not just a shield from the institutions that could forcibly stop you from speaking, then the early to mid 2010s arguably saw the freest speech in history.” The question is: “Will the first half of this decade be remembered not just as a time when speech was less fettered than ever before but as a time when it was less fettered than it will ever be again?”

Speech Spotlight: Bias Response Teams
National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement | December 20, 2019

The inaugural “Speech Spotlight” from the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement delves into the history and impact of Bias Response Teams. “The extent to which a BRT can be helpful or damaging depends greatly upon a number of factors. …it is important both to consider the potential chilling effects [a BRT] can pose and to implement procedures that encourage the team to act proactively through education.”

It’s a Weird Time to be Young and Conservative
Emma Green | The Atlantic | December 29, 2019

“It’s a weird time to be young and conservative, especially at a school like Princeton. Elite conservative circles at these universities tend to focus on great books and big ideas, on statesmanship and lofty principles. Nothing could be further from the culture of American politics at the national level today, driven as it is by tribalism and thirst for the blood of political enemies.”

Big Reads

Politics on the Quad: Students Report on Division and Disagreement at Five U.S. Universities
Wright et al. | Brandeis University Steinhardt Social Research Institute | November 2019

Reviewing survey results at three private and two public flagship universities, the authors find that, on all five campuses, conservative students were less likely than liberal students to agree that unpopular opinions can be expressed freely. However, there were considerable differences among the five campuses, suggesting that campus climates vary greatly. The report also documents perceptions of the existence of hostile environments toward students of color and Jewish students.

Symposium: Self-Censorship and the Liberal Academy
Society Volume 56, Issue 6 | December 2019

A symposium, with contributions from 11 scholars, examines the need for free expression, an ethic of civility in higher education, and the fundamentals of the university. Among the contributions is George R. La Noue’s “The Price of Individual and Institutional Self-Censorship.” Professor La Noue spoke at BPC last July, where he participated in a discussion of his book, Silenced Stages: The Loss of Academic Freedom and Campus Policy Debates.

Threats to Free Speech at University, and How to Deal with Them: Part One and Part Two
Noah Carl | Areo | December 10 and 17, 2019

In this two-part series, the author considers six challenges to higher education and proposes ways to promote free expression. The proposed solutions include using “pre-commitment devices” like free expression statements, incorporating a free speech metric into college rankings, establishing an “academic NATO” to defend scholars under attack for controversial statements, and starting a Journal of Controversial Ideas.

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