Temper the alarmism. Free speech on college campuses is not “dead” — though the culture of free speech certainly needs a makeover. 

Unless you have lived under a leaden rock for the past five years, you have undoubtedly heard stories about the decline of open dialogue on college campuses. One only has to look at examples of censorship, like the shouting down of a Republican federal judge at Stanford Law, the sanctioning of anti-Trump columns at Liberty University, and the attempt to silence a conservative professor at UNC-Chapel Hill Law School, to realize that schools do not generally protect students’ and speakers’ “right to be heard.”

With all these negative stories circulating on social media, people can quickly dismiss any attempt to applaud the state of free speech on campus — yet I hope to do just that.

Before delving into how free speech still functions on modern campuses, I want first to define what free speech means, because commentators often conflate terms like free speech, civil discourse, and hate speech. For this piece, free speech refers to the ability of individuals to participate in good faith discussions about any issue, regardless of its controversy, without facing unjust restrictions from a higher authority. With that definition in place, how might colleges still be healthy environments for free speech?

The most straightforward answer is that students still want to learn, and staff is mostly willing to let that process take place. Despite what you may see online, students and staff still actively seek out difficult discussions. The problem, however, is that the modern phenomenon of cancel culture, combined with a lack of support from university administrators, has sequestered these conversations into increasingly smaller pockets of campus.

Thankfully, within North Carolina’s various public and private institutions of higher learning, students are still meaningfully engaging one another on the most critical questions of our time. Take it from me, a conservative student at one of the most ideologically liberal schools in the state, Duke University, where I have experienced firsthand a willingness from faculty and students alike to debate so-called “off the table” subjects. 

One class in particular, Dr. John Rose’s “How to Think in an Age of Political Polarization,” achieves exactly this by forcing my peers and me to discuss the issues no one else will, all the while maintaining a civil demeanor. Everything ranging from Israel-Palestine, to transgenderism, all the way to the meaning of race has come up in class, yet no student has been “canceled” or ridiculed for their beliefs.

While free-speech alarmists may assume my experience in this course is wholly unrepresentative of broader campus attitudes, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, Dr. Rose’s class is one of, if not the most, popular and well-reviewed courses at Duke University, which speaks to students’ desire for a genuinely open learning environment. 

So, given the success of a course like Dr. Rose’s among students, one would assume that free speech is thriving on college campuses, right? Regrettably, that’s not entirely true either. Most conversations like these occur behind closed doors, where students feel free from the campus orthodoxy’s piercing glances. Though I would love for these crucial debates to happen in public settings, the problem is that no student wants to be outed or ridiculed for their beliefs. No student wants to be put on trial by their peers, but sometimes for those brave few who speak out, doing so is effectively academic and social suicide.

In short, my peers and I face a relatively simple question: Do you spend your four years on a crusade for free speech, or do you self-censor occasionally to preempt any vitriol from your classmates or professors? Sadly, it seems that approximately half of the students at North Carolina’s colleges and universities answer “yes” to the latter, saying they have “self-censored on campus at least once or twice a month” and “are worried about damaging their reputation because someone misunderstands something they have said or done.”

Given this undoubtedly grim outlook, free speech may appear on life support. Yet, those rare, inspiring instances in places like Dr. Rose’s classroom prove that some students still long for an open forum, but how do we get there? 

Well, some national organizations, like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), are already working toward securing that idealized future. FIRE, a nonprofit advocacy group founded over two decades ago, supports campus free speech by conducting university-wide surveys, contributing to policy reform efforts, and assisting with legal advocacy. Though the work of FIRE and other similar organizations is incredibly effective at holding universities accountable when they violate students’ rights, it is practically meaningless if the universities are not tailoring their behavior to create a more speech-inclusive culture.

Luckily for students at some North Carolina universities, faculty, administrators, and benefactors are currently implementing educational programs to help foster a more open learning environment. Earlier this year, UNC-Chapel Hill approved creating the School of Civic Life and Leadership to promote civil discourse and democracy on an already polarized campus. The school has already come under heavy fire due to its support from the Republican-led General Assembly, despite its nonpartisan and civility-minded approach to education. Regardless of these criticisms, there is an apparent effort by UNC-Chapel Hill administrators and politicians to implement a curriculum rooted in free speech at the state’s preeminent public university, indicating that free speech may be on the road to recovery.

Just east of UNC-Chapel Hill lies another laboratory of free speech and the home of the far superior shade of blue: Duke University. Though an incredibly ideologically homogeneous school, Duke hosts a refreshing take on the college civil discourse problem: the Transformative Ideas program. Duke launched this program in the spring of 2022 to help students “explore the deep questions of meaning, value, purpose, and spirit” through courses emphasizing civil discourse and our shared humanity. 

Apart from housing some of the most popular courses at Duke, the program also boasts an innovative initiative known as the Transformative Ideas Living Learning Community. The LLC, which functions as a dorm and student-led learning environment, develops a culture of civility by building relationships between students, thereby preventing the hateful weeds of cancel culture from ever taking root. Though the program is new and has yet to have a marked impact on the university’s overarching commitment to free speech, it has undoubtedly shown students what a world of open discourse might look like.

While these examples from Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill may only represent a small fraction of conversations at North Carolina universities, other schools, like Davidson College with the Deliberative Democracy Initiative and East Carolina University with its Cupola Conversations, have demonstrated a commitment to bolstering civil discourse on their campuses too. 

Despite these efforts, there is still much to do if colleges want to call themselves bastions of free speech and intellectual diversity. Stay tuned for part two, where I will discuss what actions universities can immediately take to improve their campus’ culture of free speech.