In the age of free speech, college campuses have become both beacons of intellectual freedom and focal points for controversy.

The First Amendment of the American Constitution protects its citizens from censorship by the government. This protection extends to many campuses across the US—when public universities receive federal funding they must also be free of censorship, so long as the language in question does not constitute targeted harassment or threats, or create a hostile environment for vulnerable students (ACLU, 2023). However, in practice, where this line is drawn (i.e., what speech is “merely” bigoted and thus protected vs when bigoted speech creates a hostile environment) is highly contentious. And where people think it should be drawn will vary depending on their values, their identities, and their lived experiences. While not new, this tension is being felt acutely by many people on campuses across the US and beyond. At Cornell, Freedom of Expression is this year’s official theme and yet several months ago the University released an interim policy on expressive activity that would restrict free speech in the form of protest. 

Because freedom of speech on campus is a pressing issue that impacts us all in different ways, we are dedicating a Big Tent meeting to have this important discussion—a discussion that’s not always easy and that may not be possible in other spaces. During the meeting we want to create a environment where we can:  

  • feel safe to share knowledge and differing opinions
  • learn from each other 
  • get and give support 

During the meeting, we will discuss the following five questions and prompts: 

  1. Share with your neighbor a story that matters to you about freedom of expression that was or was not protected. 
  2. How do you think your university treats freedom of speech issues and has that changed since you’ve joined? Are there changes or existing policies you’re concerned about? 
  3. What are your experiences with freedom of speech issues on campus? How have these affected you? 
  4. How has media attention (or lack thereof) affected you or your university? 
  5. What do you hope for for the future of freedom of speech on campus? 

If you want to do some optional reading ahead of time to prepare for the conversation, we’d recommend familiarizing yourself with the story of Chandler Davis, who was accused of anti-American activities in 1960 while working as a mathematics professor at the University of Michigan, served six months in jail, and was blacklisted from ever working the US again. 

And if you’re not super familiar with the First Amendment or you’d like to brush up on laws and court rulings related to campus speech issues, you might find the resources below useful. We share them not as an endorsement of the positions of those organizations, but as a primer on the topic. 

Finally, we will be following CAT Lab’s code of conduct, which you can access here for review.