More than 1,500 sign petition demanding free speech on campus

A student-led petition in support of “campus free expression” has garnered more than 1,500 signatures, including some from prominent professors such as Jonathan Haidt and Geoffrey Miller.

The “Statement of Principles: Free Expression on Campus” petition was launched by University of Chicago student and Campus Reform Correspondent Matthew Foldi in April with the goal of promoting free speech and “an open debate of ideas” on college campuses, and quickly attracted signatures from students, professors, and alumni alike.

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The petition explains that while the free speech movement of the 1960’s was an “entirely student-led initiative,” students in recent years have gradually abandoned that ethos, often with the encouragement of administrators.

“The active defense of free and open discourse is crucial for our society to continue to thrive as a democracy premised on the open debate of ideas,” the petition declares, asserting that “the only way to achieve this is by cultivating a culture where all are free to communicate without fear of censorship or intimidation.”

Acknowledging that “some speech may be objectionable and even hateful,” the petition nonetheless insists that “constitutionally protected speech ought to be held and enforced as the standard and must not be infringed upon,” citing Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous argument that “the fitting remedy for evil counsels” is not disruption, violence, or suppression, “but good ones.”

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Foldi told Campus Reform that he was inspired to fight for free speech after receiving death threats during his freshmen year for supporting Israel, noting that since then, he has helped to organize a free speech conference at the University of Chicago and co-started Students for Free Expression, a hub for campus free speech activists on Facebook.

“Each signature matters, and we're really excited to have just surpassed 1,500,” Foldi said.

“Supporting free expression is not only nonpartisan, but universal, and we're proud to have support from students and professors from all over the world,” he added, pointing out that “the goal of collecting signatures is to demonstrate support for free expression in a tangible way” and send the message to college administrations that free speech is welcomed by students.

In fact, Foldi boasted that two signatories, Duncan Reid at Oberlin College and Jacob Veitch at the University of Maryland, are already preparing to bring free speech bills to their student government officials later this semester.

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More than 85 professors have also signed the petition, including New York University professor Jonathan Haidt and Professor Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychology researcher at the University of New Mexico.

“Statements like this are important because they they give free speech advocates a sense of solidarity, community, and confidence,” Miller told Campus Reform. “They remind us that, no matter how hostile to free expression our colleagues and colleges may seem, there are hundreds of others out there who share our values.”

Ted Sherman, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, said he signed because free expression is intrinsic to the “pursuit of truth,” telling Campus Reform that “universities are the one place in American society where all ideas, even those that are morally repugnant, should be allowed free expression so that in the free interplay of ideas truth is recognized as such and better ideas defeat poorer ones.”

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Likewise, Mark Grabowski, a communications professor at Adelphi University, said that while he’s “under no illusion that signing a statement is going to change the world,” he views it as a small step in the right direction.

“This dangerous illiberal phenomenon is sweeping many if not most colleges,” Grabowski asserted, adding that although extreme cases of campus illiberalism—like the debacles at Evergreen State College and Middlebury College—are rare, “there are hundreds of other incidents the average person doesn't know or hear about.”

As of October 3, the petition had racked up 1,532 signatures in support of free speech, but Foldi isn’t taking all the credit.

The petition was a group effort, Foldi insisted, noting that Jacob Veitch at the University of Maryland, Rachna Shah at Dartmouth College, Duncan Reid at Oberlin College, and Daniel Acosta at American University should also be commended, along with “over 40 other students” at other colleges across America.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen