New Advocacy Group Aims to Back Free Speech on College Campuses

Speech First, a new group focused on ensuring that colleges remain a place for open discourse, plans to build support for free expression on campus by building up a strong membership.

In the American culture wars, college campuses have always been on the front lines. And in recent years, as political divisions have become more pronounced, free speech issues at colleges and universities have intensified.

Speeches by controversial figures like Milo Yiannopoulos are frequently a target of campus protests, and entire classes, like a humanities course at Reed College, have been hot spots for ongoing revolt. Those who have opinions that fall outside the norm often complain of their rights being violated.

A new voice in the debate is Speech First, a group that pledges to support free-speech rights at colleges and universities. The group, which launched yesterday, includes  students, parents, faculty, and alumni members, among others.

Speech First points to a 2016 study from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that found that 54 percent of college students refrained from stating an opinion in class at some point during their college careers, while nearly 30 percent said they had censored themselves outside the classroom out of concern that they might have a politically incorrect opinion.

“The message is clear: Students with unconventional ideas should shut up and keep their opinions to themselves. This is wrong,” said Nicole Neily, president of Speech First, in a statement. “Censoring speech infringes the rights of students to express their opinions on campus. Just as important, it harms the rights of other students to listen to the speech—to challenge, debate, and learn from the views of their fellow students.”

In an op-ed for The Hill, Neily distinguished her group from FIRE by noting that Speech First is a membership-based organization that will focus on building a collective advocacy voice.

“By joining together, we’ve created a nationwide community to reassure students that they won’t fight these cases alone—and that they’ll be supported every step of the way: on campus, in the media, and in court,” she wrote.

The group says it will work to protect speech on both sides of the political aisle. “We want to defend the rights of speakers. And just as important, we want to defend the rights of listeners too,” the group states on its website.

(vasiliki/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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