College Donors Play a Key Role in Fostering Free Expression
June 04, 2018 | Joe DeGraff
It’s all too common today to hear about controversial speakers being shouted down or protested on college campuses. In some high profile cases, large crowds of protesters prevent guest speakers from publically presenting. Over 250 students protested Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna College, barring her from entering the auditorium and forcing her to deliver her presentation via live stream. Protesters at Middlebury College prevented Charles Murray from speaking at the scheduled location and injured the faculty moderator.
This hostile climate towards free expression takes a toll on how students feel about their own freedom of speech: According to a 2018 poll of college students by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, 61% of students believe that the political climate on campuses today prevents some students from expressing their views. That’s seven points higher than it was when the survey was first conducted two years ago.
Students have a reason for concern. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that advocates for students’ first amendment rights, found that almost 40% of colleges in 2017 maintain restrictive, “red light” speech codes that limit free speech on campus.
Donors can make a difference by targeting their philanthropy to schools and programs that protect academic freedom and foster the free exchange of ideas. For example, FAR assisted philanthropist Carl Menges as he made his gift to establish the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, an off-campus program that offers lectures, conferences, and colloquia to the community of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York.
FAR helps donors to identify meritorious programs that provide a forum to hear diverse viewpoints on issues of the day, and contributors to FAR’s Free to Teach, Free to Learn fund see their gifts pooled to support programs which host speakers who introduce students to important—if controversial—ideas, create opportunities for open and respectful debate, and inform students about the history and significance of the First Amendment.
Students do recognize the value of the free exchange of ideas in our civil society. The same Gallup survey reported a majority (89%) of students agree that protecting free speech is very important to democracy. Donor-funded programs can provide the necessary platform for free speech to flourish.