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Research Report

Addressing Free Speech and Student Activism on Campus

5 steps higher ed leaders can take now on free speech policies to prepare for the 2024 election

April 30, 2024

From climate change to the ongoing conflict in Gaza to the upcoming presidential election, young people in the United States are increasingly making sure their voices are heard regarding today’s pressing political issues and are demanding corrective action from those in power. In fact, according to the Higher Education Research Institute, nearly two out of five incoming college freshman protested at least once during their senior year of high school, and one out of five expect to protest while in college.

Many campus leaders are feeling the weight of heightened student activism. Intensifying demands for action from university leaders on pressing political issues have fueled discussions and tensions across institutions. There have been a growing number of incidents where protests have led to the occupation of campus buildings, encampments, student arrests and expulsions, and disruptions of official university events, such as convocations.

Given this evolving landscape, it is imperative for senior university leaders to take proactive measures in anticipation of the 2024 election and the likely ongoing wave of student activism. Below, EAB outlines five recommendations to assist university leaders in their preparation.

1. Understand the changing landscape of free speech policies in higher education

The recent uptick of student activism on college campuses has forced many institutions, often in the moment, to review and revise their free speech policies. An intense level of scrutiny from politicians, the media, and third parties, such as The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) combined with the disruptions caused by recent campus protests has resulted in institutions adding more nuance to their free speech policies, such as expanding on consequences for violating policies, banning indoor protests, and clarifying which policies take precedence over others.

To help leaders quickly get up to speed in a rapidly evolving environment, EAB has put together a Free Speech Policy Compendium containing 22 up-to-date free speech policies and six recent statements on free speech from four-year institutions across North America. These policies are equally representative of public and private institutions, with nearly half being updated within the past 12 months.

  • Explore free speech policy examples

    Use our compendium of free speech policies from public and private higher ed institutions to help inform your own policy.


    Browse the Compendium

2. Audit your institution’s current free speech policies to identify gaps and potential vulnerabilities

It is critical that university leaders regularly review the policies they currently have in place to better identify gaps and areas where these policies leave them vulnerable and potentially ill-equipped to resolve disruptive demonstrations.

To assist with this task, EAB has developed a self-audit for partners to use to review their free speech policies including elements such as demonstration policies, literature distribution, and chalking. This audit provides a way for university leaders to explore each policy element, determine when these elements were last reviewed, and identify potential areas for improvement. The audit also contains a draft template to help with updating free speech policies.

  • Evaluate your free speech policy

    EAB’s free speech policy audit outlines three steps to audit your higher ed institution’s current policy and awareness-building initiatives.


    Audit Your Policy

3. Create a central landing page for institutional free speech policies and resources

Regularly reviewing and updating free speech policies is only the first step. Institutions must also make sure that a variety of stakeholders, including students, faculty, and staff are aware of these policies.Currently, most free speech policies are buried on university websites and are not easily found through an online search. Given the growing wave of activism in higher education, institutions must make it as easy as possible for the campus community to know about relevant free speech policies.

To make these policies more easily accessible, EAB recommends that colleges and universities create a central institution-wide webpage that contains all the relevant free speech policies and resources. Institutions such as California State Polytechnic University – Pomona and Ohio State University have created central webpages to house all their current free speech policies and statements, making it simple to find this material in only one or two clicks. Moreover, these webpages are easily found through search engines, enabling anyone who is looking for this information to find it quickly.

4. Assess current initiatives to build awareness of free speech policies on campus

In addition to ensuring that the campus community can access all free speech policies in a central location, institutional leaders should regularly share these policies with key stakeholders, such as students, staff, and faculty. Moreover, when updates are made to these policies and/or new policies are created, university leaders should also send out messages to the campus community.

Use EAB’s Policy Awareness Building Audit to review your institution’s current communication initiatives and identify opportunities for improvement.

5. Proactively outline a communication plan for fall 2024

Fall 2024 will likely be a volatile time as institutional leaders help their communities navigate the U.S. presidential election. Before students return in the fall, it is imperative for university leaders to plan a communication campaign to set expectations around free speech on campus. EAB recommends that your outreach plan includes the following elements:

Step 1: Reaffirm values and policies early in the semester

During the first two weeks of the semester, senior institutional leaders should proactively reach out to all students, staff, and faculty to reaffirm the institution’s values, free speech policies, and highlight upcoming events for the community to engage in respectful discourse around the election.

Some institutions are getting started even earlier. For example, Stanford University recently sent a letter from the president and provost to admitted undergraduate students. The letter emphasizes the university’s stance against harassment and violence while affirming students’ right to free speech on campus. Moreover, it acknowledges that exposure to different viewpoints at Stanford is inevitable and incoming students will be expected to treat opposing ideas as opportunities to learn and respectfully challenge them with evidence-based counterarguments.

  • See an example from Stanford

    Read Stanford University’s letter to admitted undergraduate students sharing their community’s approach toward freedom of expression.


    Read the Letter

Step 2: Reinforce values and share resources the week before the election

In the week ahead of the election, leaders should plan to reach out to students reinforcing the institution’s values and free speech policies. These communications should also provide links to resources, such as counseling services, for those students who may be struggling to navigate the stress and anxiety associated with the election.

Step 3: Share opportunities to debrief post-election

Regardless of who wins, emotions will be raw, and people may gather to process the news and discuss the implications of the election results. Institutions should plan to do additional outreach to the campus community in the aftermath of the election. These messages should once again highlight free speech policies as well as opportunities to engage and debrief with others on campus post-election, and the available resources for those struggling with the election result.