Thirteen US Universities Form a Free Speech Group

07:49 September 9, 2023

Thirteen US Universities Form a Free Speech Group

Thirteen American colleges and universities recently announced the creation of a plan to support freedom of speech.

The plan is part of an effort designed to fight what the schools call threats to U.S. democracy.

Among the schools taking part are Cornell University in New York state; Rutgers University in New Jersey; Notre Dame, the Catholic university in the Midwestern state of Indiana; and Benedict College, a historically Black school in South Carolina.

The effort is called The Campus Call for Free Expression. The organizer of the group is The Institute for Citizens and Scholars based in Princeton, New Jersey. It is paid for by the Knight Foundation, a private group based in Miami, Florida. The aim is to build respect for freedom of expression in colleges. Another goal is to help students bring opposing groups together.

The effort for free speech comes after students at several schools blocked people invited to speak in recent years. The students said they disagreed with the writings, comments, ideas or actions of the invited speaker.

Jonathan Alger is the president of James Madison University in Virginia, one of the schools in the group. He said the group is concerned about “deep polarization” in the U.S. where people cannot discuss their different ideas in “constructive and civil ways.” He said colleges and universities need to be an example for the nation.

The group started preparing for The Campus Call for Free Expression in March 2022. That was when college presidents gathered to discuss ways to get their students involved in democracy.

The group came up with five principles of free expression and pushed for each school to design its own programs. The principles are to be used for new student orientations, educator training and special campus gatherings called convocations.

The principles include developing knowledge that challenges common beliefs and assumptions; reaching decisions based on evidence; understanding one’s own values and gaining respect for others who have different opinions; feeling a sense of responsibility to others and the need to work toward change; and learning that free expression has consequences and does not always lead to approval.

Jonathan Holloway is the president at Rutgers. He said he saw a growing lack of respect for American institutions, and he wanted to push back against those feelings. In a discussion with the Associated Press, he said he was concerned by seeing the Confederate flag marched through the U.S. Capitol building during the riot on January 6, 2021. “That’s when things shifted for me,” he said.

Holloway will lead a first-year class at Rutgers this year that looks at the meaning of democracy. The aim is for the class to create a program that will improve civic education.

The nonprofit groups who are supporting the presidents say they are concerned that students may not be learning about how to be good citizens while in college.

Rajiv Vinnakota is president of the Institute for Citizens and Scholars. He said students become part of a community with more different kinds of people than they have ever experienced while in college. He wants students to learn how to interact with people who have different opinions and experiences. And he hopes the 13 schools will be able to lead the way for others who will soon join the group.

Vinnakota questioned if educators can “get above” issues of free expression to get people to see that higher education “can and should” play a leading part in what he called “civic preparedness.”

Some other colleges and universities in the group include Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Claremont McKenna College in California, Duke University in North Carolina and the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

The Knight Foundation gave Vinnakota’s institute $250,000 to organize discussions among university leaders over the next year-and-a-half.

Alberto Ibargüen is the head of the Knight Foundation. He said the group is interested in supporting the project because, “we believe in the free exchange of ideas…we believe in an informed citizenry…”

PEN America is a nonprofit group that works with colleges and universities on free expression programs. It is not involved in the Campus Call for Free Expression. Kristen Shahverdian is the group’s Free Expression and Education program senior manager. She said her group tells students about writers and artists around the world who have faced attacks or suffered for their ideas.

“They understand the ramifications of squashing another’s speech,” she said.

Lucas Morel is a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Virginia who is not involved in the project. He is the head of a group called the Academic Freedom Alliance. He said more universities should work on programs that permit students to learn by discussing different evidence-based ideas. He said colleges are not just for helping students get a job, but they should help young people become citizens who care about the world around them.

“If we don’t do a good job of helping them be careful readers and careful listeners, it stands to reason that as citizens they won’t be careful listeners and careful expressers of their own thought,” he said. “And it will be difficult for us to function as a self-governing society.”

I’m Faith Pirlo. And I’m Dan Friedell.

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