Free speech on college campus has emerged as a new front in the culture wars. But despite what you may have heard, most university students and faculty are supportive of free speech and the robust exchange of ideas on university campuses. According to recent research by the Knight Foundation, 84 percent of students view free speech rights as critical to our democracy.
Still, college campuses are increasingly challenging places to have challenging conversations. The same study found that the percentage of students who believe that free speech rights are secure has dropped from 59 percent to 47 percent since 2019—fully 12 points. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who felt their campus climate prevents students from expressing their opinions has increased, from 54 percent to 65 percent, since 2016.
Universities need to do more to protect free inquiry and expression, which will only flourish on campuses that are clear about their purpose, driven by cultures of curiosity and intellectual humility, hold the line when controversies arise, and focus on creating communities where everybody feels a sense of connection.
How do we do this kind of work? Universities can start by laying out clearly and loudly our purpose and articulating why free inquiry and expression of ideas are crucial to our work. This should be simple: Colleges and universities exist to produce knowledge and educate students. Neither of these is possible if faculty feel a need to censor themselves and students don’t have the opportunity to voice their views, hear the views of others and engage across intellectual differences.