acpa position on Freedom of Speech

College campuses have long been at the forefront of advocacy and social justice movements. At the center of campus advocacy and activism is the need for safe and protected platforms, allowing for the free and open expression of opinions and ideas. ACPA stands by students and college student educators who seek to use their voices to influence the world around them.

Following increased political polarization, college campuses struggle to find a balance between protecting students from increased tension and stifling free speech. Indeed, many universities have seen significant uproar over campus visits from controversial figures. We agree with experts in the field: colleges and universities must undergo strategic planning and internal re-assessment to best provide for open and free expression and speech, while protecting students from hate-speech, violence, and discrimination.

Although we recognize that discussion with others, exploration of opposing views, and dissenting opinions can help foster an environment that welcomes tolerance and free speech, we do not believe it should naturally follow that students must undergo the emotional labor involved in defending their rights and identities to others. Freedom of speech rights are layered with power structures and affect people differently based on perceived or actual power differentials.  

As representatives of campus leaders, college student educators, and student affairs professionals, ACPA aims to support students during a time in their lives of great self-exploration and personal development. Marginalized communities in particular require the space and freedom to express lived experiences with leaders of institutions of higher education. We stand to gain greatly from this critical feedback from affected students, and encourage our membership to welcome this open dialogue with students. We believe it is possible to support the tenants of freedom of speech while also addressing the harm that racist, sexist, and other oppressive speech may cause. We recognize that it is important for institutions and higher education professionals to support students who wish to express their disdain at oppressive speech through organization, resistance, or activism.

As we have learned from several cases related to campus misconduct, from sexual assault to racially insensitive comments, students must be empowered and encouraged to share their experiences with administrative professionals and their college or university.  More importantly, this information should not be ignored; this feedback should help shape the student experience, and should incite change at the institutional level.

Experts agree that open discussion, especially as it relates to racism, can help foster a campus environment that encourages and sustains free speech and expression. As institutions in the United States are always built on the oppression of minoritized individuals, we must be conscious of the influence that racism, colorism, classism, and sexism have on our profession. As the enrollment of Black folk, Indigenous folk, and People of Color continues to rise, we must join students and faculty in their critique of institutions of higher education, improving and developing our ability to serve all students in the most equitable and effective way possible.

We encourage direct and intentional action promoting free expression from campus and community leaders. This work begins with listening to students, becoming a resource and mentor, and responding appropriately to problems that students point out.

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