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AGB Issues Guidance to College and University Governing Boards on Issues Surrounding Free Speech and Expression

Sep 12, 2017

As American colleges and universities begin what could be one of their most tumultuous academic years in recent memory, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) has released a new paper with guidelines intended to provide clarity for institutional and system governing boards on the complex and sometimes volatile issue of free speech and expression. The paper, Freedom of Speech on Campus: Guidelines for Governing Boards and Institutional Leaders, is the product of an AGB convening of 25 higher education leaders, legal scholars, and other experts earlier this summer.

The new AGB paper addresses, without partisan interest, what has become a central issue across many colleges and universities—how to consider safety issues while providing for and protecting basic free-speech rights and principles of academic freedom.

“Not since the Vietnam War era have we seen so much confusion and disruption on campus,” said AGB President Richard D. Legon. “America’s higher education institutions were built on the principle of freedom of expression, and to ignore that principle would mean ignoring many of the missions and traditions that these colleges and universities have relied upon since their creation. AGB is ready to support its members as trustees discuss the challenges associated with defending and protecting free speech, and I expect this paper will be most helpful in guiding the thinking of boards.”

To provide some clarity about the tensions that emerge as colleges and universities navigate the sometimes complex and uncertain issues related to freedom of speech on campus, the AGB white paper reviews the following six guidelines:

  1. Board members should be well informed about the rights established by the First Amendment, and its principles, and how they apply to the campus’s commitment to freedom of speech.
  2. Governing boards should understand and recognize the alignment between freedom of speech and academic freedom.
  3. Governing boards should ensure that policies that clarify campus freedom of speech rights are reflective of institutional mission and values.
  4. Board discussion and debate should model civil and open dialogue.
  5. Board members should encourage presidents to initiate communication with and be available to those students who want to be heard by institutional leaders about campus culture and issues related to freedom of speech.
  6. Governing boards should make clear their support of presidents in the implementation of campus freedom of speech policies.

“I hope boards take a serious look at these recommendations,” said AGB Board of Directors Chair David W. Miles, a trustee of Drake University (IA) who also participated in the discussion in June. “Colleges and universities, as prominent forums in their local communities, will attract discussion, argument, and sometimes even protest. These guidelines offer help to boards that want to encourage their campuses to welcome and confront challenging ideas, while ensuring their institution is prepared for campus disruptions if they occur.”

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