New Statement Supports Academic Inquiry by Actors Both On and Off Campus

More than 90 organizations based in higher education, ranging from the American Council on Education and American Association of University Professors to the Yes We Must Coalition and EDUCAUSE, have signed a statement supporting “academic inquiry and debate” on American campuses. The statement, released on March 3, calls on government institutions “to share and support this commitment,” arguing that “proposals to ban speech based on the idea expressed are not only constitutionally suspect but fundamentally at odds with the values of a free and open society.” 

While that language brings to mind recent efforts to block the teaching of Critical Race Theory, the statement also calls on universities themselves to show “an unshakable commitment to robust intellectual inquiry and engagement.” This in turn echoes concerns, often from the political right, that conservatives viewpoints are routinely silenced on campus. Hence, the statement is less anodyne than it might have seemed a decade ago. 

Last month, the Knight Foundation and Ipsos released a survey (their fourth since 2016) of college student attitudes toward free expression. The survey noted “key events shaping the past two years, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the racial justice movement and the 2020 election, have only added deeper dimensions to the dialogue around free speech playing out on campus and in society at large.” 

That 44-page report’s authors identified five key takeaways from the survey: 

  • Students view speech rights as important, yet less secure than in years past. “[T]he percentage of students saying speech rights are secure has fallen every year since this question was first asked in 2016. This includes a 12-point decrease from 2019 as an increasing number of students—particularly Republicans—say they believe speech rights are threatened.”
  • Students of color believe their speech is less protected. “While a majority of college students express confidence that the First Amendment protects ‘people like them,’ Black students in particular feel much less protected, with a sharp decline from 2019 to 2021.”  
  • Students believe exposure to a wide spectrum of speech at college is important. 
  • Students favor college policies that limit racist speech, but support for other speech interventions remains low. “Just 1 in 4 students favor schools disinviting controversial speakers, down from more than 2 in 5 in 2019. Similarly, the number of students who support colleges providing safe spaces or speech codes has fallen over the past two years.” 
  • Students say the campus climate stifles free expression, yet speech on campus is making nearly 1 in 5 feel unsafe. “This is particularly true for female students and students of color.” 

“Fewer students believe that free speech is secure in America today,” the report concludes, “while more say that their school’s climate limits people from saying what they truly believe, as compared with 2016. Crucially, when college student views are set in context with those of the general adult population, it is evident that as a group, college students have the same values and priorities as all Americans. The cleavages dividing America writ large—principally partisanship and race—are also what divide college students.” 

Amid that context, the statement titled “Free and Open Academic Inquiry and Debate on Our Campuses is Essential to Our Democracy and National Well-being” appears below: 

Colleges and universities exist to examine complex issues, challenges, and ideas, and to provide a forum in which issues and opinions can be explored and openly debated. In our intensely politicized and divided country, with social media and societal silos coarsening already heated conversations, this can be extraordinarily challenging. Yet, fostering a rigorous and civil exchange of ideas has never been more important. To best serve American society, higher education institutions are committed to transparent intellectual inquiry and academic excellence, free speech, and civil discourse. It is incumbent on our governmental institutions to share and support this commitment. 

Efforts to suppress inquiry, curb discussion, and limit what can be studied violate the basic principles of free speech and an open exchange of ideas, and undermine the very purpose of higher education. Nonetheless, some elected officials have proposed measures foreclosing evaluation of complex and challenging ideas.  

The undersigned higher education associations and organizations—representing two- and four-year, public and private colleges and universities—believe this development threatens our civic health and the ability of the United States to compete globally. If American higher education is to continue to support our economy and national security as we always have done, an unshakable commitment to robust intellectual inquiry and engagement is required.  

Controversial and contentious topics deserve a place in the curriculum, but no matter how vigorous the classroom discussion, it should be respectful. Some campus speech is unacceptable, such as speech that violates the law, defames individuals, or threatens violence. Outside a few narrow exceptions, proposals to ban speech based on the idea expressed are not only constitutionally suspect but fundamentally at odds with the values of a free and open society.  

All members of the campus community must be able to speak their minds freely, even if some hold opinions that others find objectionable, factually unsupportable, or abhorrent. The answer to speech with which one disagrees is more speech, not enforced silence. Open academic inquiry and vigorous debate are core values of higher education, and America generally, and we must never waver in our commitment to these vital principles. 


American Council on Education
Achieving the Dream
ACPA-College Student Educators International
American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare
American Association of Colleges and Universities
American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers
American Association of Community Colleges  
American Association of Directors of Psychiatry Residency Training  
American Association of Physics Teachers  
American Association of State Colleges and Universities  
American Association of University Professors  
American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges  
American Dental Education Association  
American Indian Higher Education Consortium  
American Mathematical Society  
American Society of Biomechanics  
Asociación de Colegios y Universidades Privadas de Puerto Rico 
Association for Student Conduct Administration 
Association for the Study of Higher Education 
Association for Women in Mathematics  
Association of American Medical Colleges  
Association of American Universities  
Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities  
Association of College and University Housing Officers-International  
Association of College Unions International  
Association of Community College Trustees  
Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges  
Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities  
Association of Independent Colleges & Universities in Massachusetts 
Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania  
Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island  
Association of Independent Colleges of Arts & Design  
Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities  
Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities  
Association of Pathology Chairs  
Association of Presbyterian Colleges & Universities 
Association of Public and Land-grant Universities  
Association of Research Libraries  
Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors  
Association of Vermont Independent Colleges 
Biophysical Society  
Campus Compact  
Council for Christian Colleges & Universities  
Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities  
Common App  
Conference for Mercy Higher Education  
Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges  
Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area  
Consortium on Financing Higher Education  
Council for Advancement and Support of Education  
Council for Opportunity in Education  
Council of Graduate Schools Council of Independent Colleges  
Council of Independent Nebraska Colleges Foundation  
Council on Governmental Relations  
Council on Social Work Education  
Graduate Management Admission Council  
Great Lakes Colleges Association  
Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work  
Higher Education Consultants Association  
Higher Learning Commission  
Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities  
Independent Colleges of Washington Kansas  
Independent College Association  
Louisiana Association of Independent Colleges and Universities  
Middle States Commission on Higher Education  
NAFSA: Association of International Educators  
NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education  
National Association for Campus Activities  
National Association for College Admission Counseling  
National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education  
National Association of College and University Business Officers  
National Association of Colleges and Employers  
National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education  
National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities  
National Association of System Heads  
New American Colleges and Universities  
New England Commission of Higher Education  
New Hampshire College and University Council  
NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation  
NODA-Association for Orientation, Transition, and Retention in Higher Education  
North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities  
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities  
Oregon Alliance of Independent Colleges and Universities  
Phi Beta Kappa Society  
State Higher Education Executive Officers Association  
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges  
Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities  
The Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors  
WASC Senior College & University Commission  
Yes We Must Coalition 

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