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By: Olivia Welsh, Ethics and Policy Intern

Each day, headlines highlight the ongoing questions we have about the role of universities in public discourse. These conversations center on questions surrounding political neutrality, what is considered “appropriate” speech from students and faculty, and how to protect university community members from harm. These are not new questions, but the escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict, from everyday campus protests to Ivy League president resignations, has brought the issue of free speech on college campuses to a boiling point.

A university or higher-education institution is inherently a setting where intellectual and ideological disagreement will occur – and should even be encouraged. The challenge is where and how do we draw the line. What type of speech is so harmful to members of the community that it must be restricted? Who gets to decide the line between right and wrong? What is a university’s responsibility to speak out about the social and political issues of the day?

Being uncomfortable is a necessary part of growth. Being unsafe is not. This is the balance that colleges and universities are trying to strike every day. Can there ever be an institution that gets it exactly right in the eyes of all?

The background of college campus free speech

In the 1960s, free speech on college campuses was at the forefront of higher education discussions. The University of Chicago made its first attempt at taking an official stance by publishing the Kalven Report. This 1967 statement, still in use today, argues that institutions should remain socially and politically neutral while fostering lively debate among their members. The authors of the Kalven Report believed that a university should not suppress any viewpoints or change its corporate activities to foster social or political values.

“The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. […] To perform its mission in society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures” [5].

In short, the report states that a university should be a place to discuss all possible perspectives without censorship. The members of a university community can come to their own conclusions and act independently of the institution itself. The Kalven Report pushes back at anyone who might consider such a choice to not weigh in on the topics of the day as cowardly or uncaring:

“The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest.” [5]

In 2014, the University of Chicago decided to make another statement amidst an onslaught of various free speech lawsuits against universities nationwide. The resulting Chicago Principles delineate a clear and longstanding commitment to free speech and allow a wide diversity of ideas to be discussed in the University setting. The Chicago Principles reiterate the sentiment of the Kalven Report, calling debate and deliberation essential to higher education, even if the ideas discussed are viewed as “offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed” [8]. It guarantees “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn,” provided that such behavior does not interfere with the core functioning of the university [8]. Furthermore, the Chicago Principles demand that all community members not obstruct or otherwise interfere with others’ freedom of speech. The Chicago Principles conclude by arguing that “without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university” [8].

These are the positions that the University of North Carolina System (“UNC System”) adopted in 2017, as endorsed by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s (“UNC-Chapel Hill”) Faculty Council and Board of Trustees [10] [3]. The UNC System schools are among over 100 other colleges and universities nationwide that have adopted the Chicago Principles, including several of our peer institutions [4]. In 2022, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees took a further step in protecting free speech by adopting the Kalven Report [2].

“The mission of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is advanced by our commitment to the aspirational principles that guide our public conversation no matter how unsettling […] At Carolina, we have long known that light and liberty are the essential tools that allow problems to be seen, ideas to be tested, and solutions to be found,” the Faculty Council states [10].

Of course, both the UNC System and UNC-Chapel Hill have policies regulating free speech, which forbid defamation, unlawful harassment, true threats, unjust invasions of privacy, and more (see the UNC System Policy and the UNC-Chapel Hill Policy). However, these policies leave several unanswered questions. For example, it is not always clear what speech falls under the category of a “true threat,” especially because that might mean different things to different people.

When does protecting free speech interfere with a university’s teaching mission and functioning? Do institutions have a different obligation to protect historically marginalized groups compared to historically well-represented groups? What is a university’s responsibility in addressing social and political issues? There are no “right” answers, but some views on these questions are explored below.

When does protecting free speech inhibit a university’s functioning?

The Kalven Report, the Chicago Principles, and the UNC policies all indicate that it is appropriate to restrict free speech when it interferes with the necessary functioning of the university, with safety concerns being of utmost importance. Beyond cases like riots that would physically disallow classes from taking place and endanger members of the university, disruptions like exclusionary speech could also be viewed as interfering with a university’s core functioning by hindering equal access to education. If it is a university’s mission to educate all its students, but a particular group feels unreasonably ostracized due to the free speech of others and feels unable to attend or participate in class, then one could argue that speech is interfering with the necessary functioning of the university.

Say that, while not violating any laws, an anti-Black Lives Matter (“BLM”) speaker comes to campus and delivers a scathing condemnation of the BLM movement. However, the speaker’s remarks and student participation in the event make Black students feel unwelcome on campus, and therefore, these students find it harder to benefit from their education. Does this qualify as speech that interferes with the university’s functioning? And if so, should it not be welcomed on campus?

On the flip side, does inhibiting a challenging viewpoint negatively impact the educational environment? Students should have the opportunity to grapple with difficult ideas and the controversies of the day – that is part of what is so valuable about a liberal arts education. Colleges are not full of fragile students who cannot stand to hear free speech, and they should not be portrayed as such. The key is creating an environment where the needs of all students remain supported even during protests, controversial speakers, and difficult discussions. However, it is not easy to prescribe a single policy for handling free speech since circumstances vary dramatically from institution to institution [1].

Is there a different obligation to protect historically marginalized groups at a university?

Continuing with this hypothetical of an anti-BLM speaker on campus, how might appropriate free-speech regulation differ based on context? According to UNC System data, just over 8% of UNC-Chapel Hill’s undergraduate student body identifies as Black/African American [11]. In the context of having such a significant minority, is it justified to more strictly regulate free speech that makes Black students feel unwelcome and further marginalized at the university?

One might think that free speech should be fully protected regardless because any university member in opposition has an equal right to free speech in response. However, just because someone has the right to free speech does not mean they feel reasonably empowered to use it. This highlights the important distinction between equality, which treats everyone the same, and equity, which recognizes that creating a level playing field often means allocating more or less resources to particular individuals or groups based on their specific circumstances. Giving all campus community members the same right to free speech is equal, but equitable free speech would amplify and protect minority groups.

The teaching mission of a university relies on an inclusive climate. Institutional attention is necessary to ensure that all students in diverse classrooms are comfortable being involved in the learning experience. Because it is important to include ALL students in an environment of free inquiry, there is an argument that free speech that specifically marginalizes an already minority group must be more strictly regulated than controversial speech that makes a majority group uncomfortable [1].

This is where context is important because, unlike UNC-Chapel Hill, Howard University (“Howard”) has a very strong majority of Black students. At Howard, Black students would likely not feel as threatened by an anti-BLM speaker; therefore, students could more comfortably engage in rigorous debate and grapple with differing viewpoints, which is essential in higher education.

What is a university’s responsibility to govern speech on campus about social and political issues?

This past November, a speaker unaffiliated with UNC-Chapel Hill made remarks on campus that sympathized with the violence perpetrated by Hamas against Israeli citizens on October 7th, 2023 [7]. Such tolerance for violence (which killed over a thousand Israeli citizens) is clearly alarming and certainly falls under the category of speech seen as “offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” But remember that, in the spirit of free inquiry and true academia, the Chicago Principles protect such speech. The remarks did not include a threat or any other banned speech.

Then-Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz strongly condemned the remarks, as did the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and many others at UNC-Chapel Hill. Months later, the Faculty Council, the same one that originally endorsed the Chicago Principles, considered a resolution to “strongly condemn the antisemitic statements at the event.” The group decided to indefinitely postpone the resolution, avoiding taking a side on its merits. While some did feel strongly that the remarks were antisemitic, others viewed this as a mislabeling since the comments contained no mention of the Jewish religion or people and only directly criticized the actions of the Israeli state.

There is another tricky consideration – if the Faculty Council passes a resolution condemning antisemitism, must it follow this up with a condemnation of Islamophobia to ensure neutrality and inclusivity? Does this set a precedent by which the Faculty Council must condemn any speech it regards as harmful, even if the speech does not violate the UNC System or UNC-Chapel Hill free speech policies? Who decides what should and should not be condemned, and where is the line drawn regarding what warrants a comment?

Certainly, this is not to say that members of an institution cannot or should not speak up against violence or perceived hate. Still, at the institutional level, there are significant policy ramifications to consider in protecting free speech and thorough education [7]. Starting to weigh in on social and political issues is a slippery slope for universities because it creates an expectation of doing so for all issues. The authors of the Kalven Report anticipated this and promoted institutional neutrality, trying to make a university a simple facility where lively debates on the day’s topics can occur.

This is a perfectly reasonable argument, but there is another drastically different viewpoint. Is institutional neutrality just a convenient excuse for universities to stay silent and take the “easy way out?” [12]. At Indiana University (“IU”), administrators recently caused an uproar when they canceled a scheduled art exhibition by a Palestinian-American artist. IU administration cited security concerns as the reason for the cancellation. However, the artist, members of the IU community, and outside organizations speculate that the real reason is a reaction to comments by an Indiana congressman who threatened to withhold federal funding from IU if it failed to address perceived antisemitism concerns adequately [6].

Walking a political tightrope does not seem to be a legitimate reason for censorship at a public university. Institutional neutrality that allows for all viewpoints to be expressed is very different than a restrictive “institutional neutrality” that prohibits any viewpoints from being expressed. Universities risk establishing an orthodox view on campus by making statements or taking actions regulating free speech, thereby ostracizing alternative thinkers [9]. While a university might not be responsible for acting on social and political issues (the substance for a whole different debate), it does have a responsibility to facilitate an environment that considers social and political issues and equips its students to handle these difficult or delicate issues once they graduate.

Between a rock and a hard place

There are still so many unanswered questions regarding free speech on campus, and it is doubtful that a satisfactory solution will ever be reached. Any policy on free speech must consider legal constraints, institutional missions, and the feelings of students, faculty, and staff. With so many stakeholders to satisfy, it makes sense that the issue of free speech on campus keeps coming up.

During controversial times, it is helpful to remember that heated moments subside, and history reflects that. “Right answers” are hard to come by, but at the end of the day, a university that can keep its campus community safe and facilitate productive conversations is doing its job pretty well.


[1] Ben-Porath, Sigal. “Against Endorsing the Chicago Principles.” Inside Higher Ed | Higher Education News, Events and Jobs, December 10, 2018.

[2] Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Rep. Resolution on the Affirmation of Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech. UNC Board of Trustees, 2022.

[3] Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Rep. Resolution to Affirm Faculty Council’s Statement on Speech at The University. UNC Board of Trustees, 2021.

[4] “Chicago Statement: University and Faculty Body Support.” The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, 2024.

[5] Kalven, Harry, John Hope Franklin, Gwin J. Kolb, George Stigler, Jacob Getzels, Julian Goldsmith, and Gilbert F. White. Rep. Kalven Committee: Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action 1. 1st ed. Vol. 1. University of Chicago, 1967.

[6] Palmer, Kathryn. “Academic Freedom Battles Roil Indiana University.” Inside Higher Ed, February 26, 2024.

[7] Quinn, Ryan. “Campus Vote on Antisemitism Resolution Is Microcosm of National Debate.” Inside Higher Ed, February 7, 2024.

[8] Stone, Geoffrey R., Marianne Bertrand, Angela Olinto, Mark Siegler, David A. Strauss, Kenneth W. Warren, and Amanda Woodward. Rep. Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression. University of Chicago, 2015.

[9] The Academic Freedom Alliance, Heterodox Academy, and Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. “An Open Letter to College and University Trustees and Regents: It’s Time to Adopt Institutional Neutrality.” Institutional Neutrality, February 7, 2024.

[10] The Faculty Council. Rep. Resolution 2018-3. On Principles for the Promotion and Protection of Free Speech. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2018. .

[11] The University of North Carolina System. “Demographics,” 2024.

[12] Vasquez, Michael. “Is Institutional Neutrality Catching On?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 8, 2024.

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