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BPC’s Pfeffer Merrill Testifies on Campus Free Expression Before Wisconsin State Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities

Washington, DC – Today, testifying before the Wisconsin State Assembly’s Committee on Colleges and Universities hearing at 10 a.m. CT, Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Campus Free Expression Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, will emphasize that campus climate for free expression and open inquiry is under tremendous stress and point to the role the legislature can play in restoring it.  

Pfeffer Merrill will say, “it is possible to have policies that secure against the heckler’s veto and other violations of expressive freedoms without a culture of students and faculty openly debating and engaging with new or controversial ideas. It is necessary both to protect against those few who would actively shut down debate and to cultivate among everyone skills for genuine intellectual discussion.” 

BPC’s Academic Leaders Task Force report, Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap, found that the chilling of campus speech is degrading higher education’s capacity to carry out its missions of research, teaching, and preparing the next generation for citizenship and civic leadership. To address this, the task force made four core recommendations for colleges and universities: 

  1. Address the perceived tension that pits academic freedom and freedom of expression against diversity, equity, and inclusion. 
  2. Cultivate viewpoint diversity on campus. 
  3. Adopt strong policies for the protection of free expression and academic freedom. 
  4. Teach the skills and habits of mind necessary for academic and civil discourse. 

The legislature has an important role to play in protecting free expression and diversity of thought on campus, but Pfeffer Merrill will say that “free expression is, at its root, a matter of culture, and campus culture can only be established on campus, by administrative leaders, faculty, staff, and students. 

To the extent the legislature should consider actions on issues of campus free expression, Pfeffer Merrill recommends they should: 

  1. Affirm protections for free expression well established in case law; 
  2. Affirm the academic freedom of faculty to research, teach, and express opinions on matters of public concern; 
  3. Affirm that no one should be compelled to avow or disavow any particular viewpoint, principle, or ideology; 
  4. Support university and system-led free expression, civil dialogue, and civics initiatives. 

The success of America’s pluralistic democracy depends upon preparing the next generation of students for civic participation as independent thinkers who can tolerate contrary viewpoints and work constructively with those with whom they have principled disagreements.  

Read Pfeffer Merrill’s Full Testimony 

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