A New Force On Campus: Students For Free Expression

September 2017

American college campuses made headlines this year, from violence at Middlebury to riots at Berkeley. As awful as those events were, they exemplified what many of us across the US take as given: certain viewpoints are simply unwelcome on college campuses.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has done an excellent job chronicling both successful and unsuccessful attempts to silence people. FIRE records that in past year alone, there were at least thirty-four attempts to disinvite speakers.

I’ve just begun my fourth year at the University of Chicago. Over the past three years, while busy supporting free expression on campus, I often wondered where the professors were. Faculty members regularly lead the way at Chicago, but why aren’t their colleagues around the country supporting free expression?

At the beginning of the 2016 school year, soon after John Ellison, one of our deans, sent all first year students a letter staunchly supporting free expression on our campus, another University of Chicago dean asked me my thoughts. That simple conversation developed into the first-ever entirely student-run free expression conference (at least the first that I know of). Students from fourteen schools across America gathered last April at the University of Chicago to address, from every perspective, the matter of free expression on campus. On the final day of the conference, we wrote a Statement of Principles. Our newly formed organization, Students for Free Expression, has now sent that statement around the world. Within a month of the conference, we had obtained over 1,000 signatures.

Our Statement of Principles says, in part, that “the only way to achieve [a well-rounded education] is by cultivating a culture where all are free to communicate without fear of censorship or intimidation. While some speech may be objectionable and even hateful, constitutionally protected speech ought to be held and enforced as the standard and must not be infringed upon.”

Students for Free Expression has several broad goals, many similar to those of SAFS, but directed primarily at students. Like SAFS, we will work with “university administrations where we feel that academic freedom or the merit principle have been compromised.”

We’ve brought to dozens of colleges around the US a three step process. It begins with collecting signatures for our Statement. Students at the college then present a bill to the student government. Finally, students present school administrators with concrete evidence of the campus community’s support for free expression.

Students for Free Expression is now active at over thirty schools in the US and Mexico. We firmly believe that free expression on campus is a universal principle that stretches beyond borders. We ask your help in expanding our reach throughout Canada. Sign our Statement, forward it to sympathetic colleagues, and tell your students that we exist. We want to assist them in advancing free expression at their own schools at a time when doing so could not be more important.