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Colleges Are Defending Free Speech. Will Students Follow Suit?

The University of Chicago’s highly-publicized letter declaring the school’s commitment to diversity of opinion seems to have inspired a slew of imitators, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

FIRE is seeing an encouraging uptick in pro-free speech statements by college administrators early in this academic year. In just a few weeks’ time, administrators at schools like Columbia University, Brown University, and Claremont Mckenna College (CMC) have all made public statements committing to protect freedom of expression on campus.

The catalyst for this recent batch of speech-friendly statements seems to be the “academic freedom letter” the University of Chicago (UChicago) sent to incoming students last month, advising them not to expect “intellectual ‘safe spaces’” when they arrive on campus. The letter was widely reported on, and reignited the national debate over campus speech restrictions. It also seems to have resonated with many other college administrators.

This is a welcome development. Campus leaders remained silent, by and large, for the past two years as the traditions of liberal education took a thrashing on college campuses across the country, and statements like these set a powerful and much-needed moral example.

That said, it’s worth highlighting two caveats: First, declaring one’s commitment to “academic freedom” in the abstract is easier than backing it up when it matters. For example, when Brandeis University disinvited Ayaan Hirsi Ali from its commencement ceremony in 2014 due to protests about her controversial opinions on Islam, it denied that it was reneging on its commitment to wide-ranging debate. “In the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University throughout its history,” the University wrote in its Orwellian statement dis-inviting Ali, “Ms. Hirsi Ali is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.”

Second, the main resistance to a vigorous free speech culture at U.S. colleges and universities increasingly comes from students, not censorious administrators. As we’ve written: “Instead of formal speech codes backed by university administrations, campus illiberalism is increasingly manifested in informal undergraduate culture: Speakers are shouted down by angry crowds; student governments sanction minority student groups for holding unpopular events; faculty mentors who write emails challenging the orthodoxy are pressed by their own students to resign.” Campus administrators, by making the rules and setting the tone, can make a real difference. But the most important pushback against illiberalism will have to come from students themselves, by changing their approach to people with whom they disagree.

In short, advocates of liberal education should cheer the early signs of a turnaround on college campuses. But we shouldn’t break out the champagne just yet.

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