Since our nation’s founding, Americans have placed a high value on the fundamental freedoms to speak, inquire, and learn, freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment. These freedoms not only infuse the spirit of the liberal arts, but are also essential to the continued health and existence of our nation. Central to liberal democracy and the republican form of government is a spirit of political participation that requires curious, engaged citizens who can speak and think freely with one another. As is a basic tolerance for opposing viewpoints and a vigilance against tyranny in all of its obvious and subtle forms.
The dangerous effects of BRSs must be confronted and addressed. It’s not just about defending essential freedoms, but also about creating and sustaining a society in which we can exercise them. These policies do not cultivate a space of inclusion and diversity. Instead, they compromise students’ fundamental rights to free speech and inquiry, profoundly weaken the academy, and threaten our constitutional republic and our relentless pursuit of a more perfect union.
Several steps can and should be taken, in conjunction, to address BRSs.
Take legal action. Speech First holds universities accountable for their actions. We have been on the front lines of the fight against bias reporting policies from the beginning, and many of our
21 Data from FIRE’s 2017 Report on Bias Reporting Systems
cases have involved the activities of BRSs and their chilling effects on student speech. To date, Speech First is the only organization to prevail in litigation against a bias reporting system, effectively ending the systems at the University of Michigan and University of Texas. If you’re interested in taking action on your own campus to stop a BRS from censoring student speech, you should reach out to Speech First or other public-interest groups who protect students’ First Amendment rights.
Monitor and revoke state and federal funding for universities that violate students’ First Amendment rights. Public universities are taxpayer-funded institutions and are thus answerable to the people. Even private universities receive state and federal grants and, as a condition of receiving those funds, must comply with the applicable regulations to the same degree as public universities. At the federal level, the Department of Education needs to monitor the campus speech policies of schools that receive federal funding. Moreover, if a university applying for a federal grant has policies that appear to facially restrict student speech, its application should be paused for further investigation.
State governments can also play an important role. They can enact legislation to enhance transparency at state universities and provide oversight to ensure that public institutions comply with those requirements. State legislatures could, for example, require public universities to conduct annual student surveys evaluating the free speech climates on their campuses. States could mandate that freshmen orientations include courses on the First Amendment and exercising free speech. Additionally, because most BRSs are housed in university DEI departments, state legislators could mandate increased disclosures from DEI departments about their BRS procedures. A recent report from the Idaho Freedom Foundation lists several additional ways lawmakers can reform college campuses, such as designating all outdoor areas on public universities as public forums open to free speech and requiring colleges and universities to disclose how their policies protect free speech on their campuses. These types of policies incentivize transparency and encourage universities to aim for open discourse and free speech on their campuses.
Apply public pressure. Parents, students, and alumni should regularly engage with their state legislators, congressional representatives and staff, and university boards of trustees. Public pressure can not only alert policymakers to the gravity of the issue but also inspire them to champion campus free speech issues. Lawmakers often don’t see a spirited push about student free speech rights from their constituents, but the more that constituents emphasize this issue, the greater the pressure to take action will become. Alumni must also emphasize to university boards of trustees that initiatives like BRSs will damage the prestige of their institutions and weaken their academic reputations.
Engage alumni donors. Alumni should exert pressure on their alma maters. Major donors
22 “See Department of Education, Free inquiry Rule, 85 Fed. Reg. 59916 (Sept. 23, 2020), https://bit.ly/3iROiq8.
23 “Social Justice in Idaho Higher Education, University of Idaho – Idaho Freedom.” Accessed February 4, 2022. https://idahofreedom.org/research/social-justice-in-idaho-higher-education-university-of-idaho/.
should take a closer look at how the universities they love and support have changed from when they were last on campus. Millions of dollars of alumni donations are being spent on DEI departments and other misguided efforts that lead to speech restrictions on campus.
Empower students. Finally, students must recognize the responsibility they have to themselves. Self-censorship, avoiding discussions and debates, and other forms of complacency will not lead to more open discourse on campus. Instead, it will embolden those who wish to eliminate dissenting voices. Students must know their constitutional rights, federal and state laws, and campus policies. Students should note any red flags when reading student handbooks and reach out to organizations like Speech First when they encounter policies that chill speech on campus. Because Speech First will be there every step of the way, students can have the courage to speak whenever and wherever campus administrators, faculty, and peers try to shut down speech. Finally, students who support free speech on campus should consider running for Student Government, founding or joining clubs that advocate for the First Amendment, or writing for the campus paper or other news and media outlets.
Below is advice from students who are on campuses now and facing similar challenges:
“The best advice I can give to the next generation of college students is to stand firm in your values and don’t allow yourself to be silenced.”– Olivia Gallegos, Wichita State
“The biggest piece of advice I would offer is to become so extraordinarily educated on your beliefs and opinions that you become confident enough to speak up and out against those silencing you. And when you are met with opposition and the stifling of your speech, fight back with facts.”– Adam Fairchild, University of Colorado- Boulder
“My best advice to college students and beyond is to always remember that the Constitution is on your side. We need more students who are willing to stand up in their classrooms, challenge colleges and universities when they attempt to silence them and encourage their peers to do the same.”– Kiara Kincaid, University of Oklahoma
“The best advice I can give to the next generation of college students is to stand firm in your values and don’t allow yourself to be silenced.” – Olivia Gallegos, Wichita State