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Faculty resources for supporting free speech, academic freedom on campus

On campuses across the United States, conversations about free speech are a hot-button issue. The University of Utah welcomes debate on its campus and celebrates the diversity of ideas that faculty, staff and students hold. 

“We are trying to create a First Amendment culture here at the University of Utah where people understand that the university isn’t endorsing one preferred point of view over another, but instead wants to create an environment where there can be healthy debate and people can agree to disagree,” said Paul Cassell, a distinguished professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law and a member of the U’s Academic Freedom Committee. 

Academic freedom and free speech are essential to the success of the U and all higher education institutions. For generations, college campuses have been places where all ideas can be explored, debated and refined, Cassell said. 

From the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War protests of the 1960s and 70s, university campuses were ground zero for freedom of thought and expression. No one—conservative, liberal or indifferent—should fear a robust discussion, disagreement or protest stemming from the hot issues of the day.

As the school year begins, here is a reminder of resources available to faculty and staff.

The faculty handbook provides information about the rights and responsibilities of faculty, including in relation to academic freedom in general on campus. In regards to the right of faculty and staff to engage with elected leaders, the Government Relations team at the U sends out a letter at the beginning of the fall and spring semesters explaining the best practices for expressing views.

The Academic Freedom Committee at the U works to actively promote diverse viewpoints on campus by bringing a variety of speakers to the U, and helping implement policies that support the expression of views on campus. This fall they are hosting the author and free speech activist Christopher Finan. Finan’s most recent book is entitled “How Free Speech Saved Democracy.” More details can be found here. 

As an added measure of support in facilitating free speech on campus, the Utah Board of Higher Education recently passed a resolution affirming the principles of free expression. 

The resolution outlines principles and directives universities should adhere to in protecting free speech, including not canceling speakers “whose views are divisive or distressing.” Instead, the resolution encourages institutions to “foster a culture that encourages respectful discussion and debate of controversial or unpopular viewpoints.”

“Free speech does not mean you have the right to say anything, nor does it give you the right to boo speakers off the stage,” said Rich Christensen, Utah System of Higher Education (USHE) board member, while presenting the resolution. 

The purpose of the resolution is to guide higher education presidents in Utah in determining the best way to support open dialogue on their campuses while also encouraging civility. 

“We hope that this gives support to all the presidents as they move forward in some of these challenging areas,” said Hope Eccles, another USHE board member.