How to Create a Campus Free-Expression Statement

A leader of the University of Wyoming’s effort takes us behind the curtain.

Last spring, I co-led a working group at the University of Wyoming tasked with articulating the principles of freedom of expression, intellectual freedom, and constructive dialogue. In addition to describing these principles, we were charged with making recommendations for operationalizing, communicating, and practicing them on campus. This essay explains how we accomplished the task and the opportunities UW (or any university) has to implement some of our recommendations.

The president of the university, Ed Seidel, announced his plan to establish the working group in November of 2022. By December, he had received commitments from 18 campus stakeholders, including faculty, staff, administrators, students, and a trustee. In January of 2023, the working group formed a plan of action and, following the president’s directive, identified over a dozen external stakeholders in Wyoming whom we wanted to consult.

Free expression is sometimes inappropriately pitted against academic freedom on campus.The working group divided up into three subcommittees, responsible for (1) articulating the principles, (2) operationalizing and communicating the principles, and (3) practicing the principles. Each subcommittee met every other week, then all convened as a whole the other two weeks of the month. In between the weekly meetings, there were conversations with external stakeholders; readings and statements to review; presentations to faculty, staff, and student senates; a survey of all students to gauge their perceptions of the campus culture; and a mid-semester check-in with the president. By semester’s end, the working group had agreed upon a statement of principles and a set of recommendations for the president to consider.

Our statement of principles considered both free expression and academic freedom. This is especially important given that the former is sometimes inappropriately pitted against the latter—as when an area of scholarly study is banned under the guise of protecting free expression or when a student wrongly expects his or her personal opinion to substitute for knowledge of a discipline. Further, while free expression protects students and employees from censorship when they are expressing themselves as ordinary citizens, academic freedom and its attendant responsibilities govern conduct in college classrooms, scholarship, and academic publications. It’s not a right of students (or instructors) to say “2+2=5” and get credit in a math class. Nor are students (or instructors) entitled to announce their opinions about war or abortion in that math class, given that such opinions are not relevant to the course.

Like many academic institutions, the University of Wyoming had already articulated commitments to free speech and academic freedom. New for the campus was the commitment to institutional neutrality as a way to respect the intellectual, academic, and expressive freedoms of individual members of the campus community. Finally, the statement included the reasons why we value constructive dialogue. On a public university campus where the First Amendment rights of students and employees must be respected, free expression should not be confused with our raison d’etre, which is the production and dissemination of knowledge—an endeavor that demands disciplined speech, fair-minded reasoning, and the expert vetting of ideas. Our statement connected these notions with the unique history of both the state and university, a process for which consulting our external stakeholders proved particularly helpful.

The working group having completed its charge, the president shared our report with the campus and invited comments from everyone who cared to offer them. After reviewing the feedback, he chose to make no changes to the principles statement itself (although feedback on implementing the various recommendations would surely be taken into account).

In keeping with the standards of shared governance, UW’s process was, from the start, inclusive.In keeping with the standards of shared governance, the process had, from the start, been inclusive. Nevertheless, before the university officially adopted the principles, the president asked various groups to let him know formally whether or not they endorsed them. At this stage, questions were raised, in some cases by people who seemed to be considering the statement of principles for the first time: If you respect free-expression rights, how will you stop hate speech? If the university is neutral on the social and political issues of the day, what will the administration do when a professor speaks, in his or her capacity as an expert, only to get attacked on social media by a group with political motivations? Shouldn’t we avoid saying “rugged individualism”? Shouldn’t that comma be a semicolon? 

And so, for most of the fall semester, the principles were discussed, and formal endorsements rolled in from the Faculty Senate, the Staff Senate, the Dean’s Council, the President’s Cabinet, the Program Directors, and the Associated Students of UW. It was shared governance on steroids. But that’s ultimately a good thing. While the Princeton Principles, released in August of 2023, have received much attention, Princeton University has yet to adopt them. In July of 2023, North Carolina Senate Bill 195 required UNC-System schools to adopt a policy of institutional neutrality, but such top-down approaches are often met with pushback. A collaboration among a diversity of stakeholders is more likely to lead to a widespread understanding of, and commitment to, the principles.

Of course, articulating or signing on to a set of principles is only the beginning. People across the university need time and guidance for reviewing policies, procedures, practices, and communications to be sure they align with those principles. Various offices on campus are now reviewing any relevant recommendations and are making their own recommendations for alignment. If we think of implementing the working group’s recommendations like a quality enhancement plan, some key areas for a university to examine include:

  • Which policies, norms, routines, and practices promote the principles? Which ones do not align, and how might they be changed?
  • What credit-bearing coursework helps students learn about or practice the principles? How about non-credit bearing (co-curricular) activities?
  • Do the principles clearly support, or are they reflected in, the university’s vision and mission statements?
  • How will the principles be promoted in executive leadership and other institutional communications?
  • What messages are current and prospective students and employees receiving at present, and how can the principles be worked into existing communication streams, where people’s attention already is?
  • How can a robust understanding of the principles and their application be developed across the faculty and staff through, e.g., professional development opportunities and new employee onboarding? (Same question for students.)
  • What existing groups, offices, clubs, and traditions on campus can readily embrace the principles?
  • How will the university examine outcomes for efforts toward embracing these principles? Will there be a climate survey? Can the university add questions to the COACHE survey or other existing self-examinations?
  • How will alumni and other external stakeholders learn about or get engaged with the principles?
  • Will a central office, or set of people in various offices, coordinate the institution’s quality enhancement plan around these principles? How will the institution audit or track what is being done on campus?

These questions could enable campus leaders, or any campus group, to perform an audit of their institution or specific unit. Clearly, change occurs at various levels, which include individual interventions (we want students to be curious, respectful, intellectually humble, resilient, and comfortable with pluralism); interventions specific to the context (classrooms, residence halls, clubs, departments and programs, and campus events); and interventions that impact campus-wide norms, so that what it means to be a member of the university community is widely understood and embraced.

For anyone wishing to launch an initiative like this, the keys to a successful approach are to involve a large group of stakeholders on campus, consult with external stakeholders, keep communications flowing, tie the principles to the unique mission and culture of your institution, and know that the important work of implementing any recommendations that get accepted will take longer than you think. In addition, those working on this important task should be prepared for skeptical faculty, staff, students, and reporters to accuse the administration or the members of the working group of corrupt intent—and for people to say, six months in, that they have never heard of the initiative before, and wouldn’t it be cool if someone created a committee or wrote a statement.

Martha McCaughey is professor emerita in sociology at Appalachian State University and an adjunct professor in the department of criminal justice and sociology at the University of Wyoming.