The Latest Numbers on Campus Free Speech, and More

Over the past year, two key organizations on free-speech and open-discourse issues, FIRE and the Knight Foundation, completed surveys about the state of free speech and the general campus climate. I sat down virtually with FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, and Sam Gill, senior vice president and chief program officer at the Knight Foundation, to hear what new trends they have noticed, whether there are areas of improvement or new concern, and how all of this is playing out in this highly unusual year.

In addition to sharing some numbers, these two thought leaders provided their perspectives on some complex questions surrounding the role that free speech and open discourse play on campuses around our country. Here are some of the many interesting topics we discussed: 

  • For the first time, FIRE is able to rank universities on free speech. Not surprisingly, campuses such as the University of Chicago, where President Robert Zimmer established the now famous Chicago Principles, ranked No. 1. Colleges without such policies ranked low, including some Ivory League institutions. 

  • Knight’s surveys have delved beyond the surface regarding support for free speech or how safe students feel in expressing their views on campus to measure responses by race and other demographic information.  

  • Given that a campus serves an educational purpose and is made up of different elements (classrooms, dorms, open spaces), the standards and policies on free speech might differ by setting. 

  • We discussed the role of social media, cancel culture, and disinformation in the current pandemic. 

The main takeaway? Numbers can only tell us so much about what’s happening on campuses. These are complex ecosystems with a specific educational purpose. How best to create a climate of open discourse while protecting free speech is far from obvious, but we are now able to tell better which universities are doing well on this front, and which really have lost their way. As universities still serve as cultural beacons and fountainheads of ideas, even if their esteem is declining in public opinion, it is worth ensuring that they remain places where students and faculty pursue knowledge and truth.  

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