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Free Speech Matters: A Statement on the Ongoing Campus Protests and the Upcoming Congressional Hearing

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Washington, DC, May 14, 2024- Academic freedom and freedom of expression are fundamental to higher education. Where these freedoms operate, ideas are shared, challenged, discussed, and debated without fear of retribution or censorship—even when those ideas are unpopular, even when those ideas are offensive. Through this free exchange of ideas in pursuit of truth, knowledge advances and expands. Learning and understanding result when different points of view and deeply held beliefs are expressed freely, questioned openly, and evaluated critically. This is the essential purpose of a college or university in a diverse, democratic society.

While the boundaries of free expression are often contested, hatred and intimidation have no place on a college campus. With freedom comes responsibility, and no freedom is without reasonable limits. Yet, as places of open inquiry and inclusion, colleges and universities must treat the protection of academic freedom and freedom of expression as their highest priority. In the current context, shaped by the spread of campus protests in response to the Israel-Hamas war, this means responding to the discomfort and disruption of student activism in ways appropriate to institutions whose purpose is to educate and engage, not to discipline or silence. In doing so, they demonstrate that protecting these fundamental freedoms and ensuring both the safety of all members of the campus community and the unimpeded operation of the college or university are not mutually exclusive goals.

As college and university leaders continue to grapple with the challenges posed by the ongoing campus protests, those challenges are being compounded and widened by unprecedented political interference in higher education. Since 2021, state governments across the country have proposed or enacted restrictions on what can be taught and discussed at colleges and universities; sought to dismantle campus efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion; and targeted tenure and accreditation, key pillars upholding academic freedom and institutional autonomy. This alarming government overreach has lately moved onto the national stage, taking campus responses to the Israel-Hamas war as a pretext to exert political pressure on college and university leaders to restrict academic freedom and freedom of expression.

Next week, the US House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce will hold its third hearing ostensibly focused on antisemitism at colleges and universities. The hearing is likely to be, as the two prior hearings were, performative rather than informative and orchestrated to yield “viral” moments that can be used to feed a partisan narrative about higher education. Yet the hearing must be seen for what it is: a further escalation in an ongoing partisan attack on higher education that proceeds by taking aim at academic values and principles that are fundamental to advancing knowledge, developing an informed citizenry, and serving the common good. For a uniquely diverse national system of higher education whose unrivaled quality depends on a model of governance intended to shield it from direct government control and political interference, this attack constitutes an existential threat.

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