2019-21 Free Speech

Free speech on campus?

The Constitutional Studies program at Carroll ran a program on the question of how diverse societies can ensure free speech, addressing the question, “Free Speech vs. Civility?” This included a) two panels with state and national experts, b) essay prizes and a reading group, and c) an effort to gather data on the college climate for freedom of speech. These activities were supported by a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.


The first panel, on October 22, 2019, addressed the topic of whether there is a free speech crisis on college campuses in Montana. The state legislature passed a bill on free speech, but it was vetoed by the Governor. Here is a short video with highlights from the event. The video features the bill's sponsor, supporters, and critics.

The second panel was delayed due to the pandemic, but rescheduled for February 2021. This featured former ACLU President, Nadine Strossen, and Professor Erik Bleich (Middlebury College) debating the question, “Should Colleges Allow Hateful Speech?”

hateful-speech graphic

Reading group

In the spring of 2020, a group of 14 students discussed current controversies on free speech, using insights from recent books by experts. Here are some reflections on what the students learned.



We ran three surveys on campus to assess our free speech climate. We found that about 85% of students either strongly agree or agree with the statement, “In my college classes, I feel comfortable sharing my ideas and opinions.” As illustrated in Figure 1, the experience of Carroll students is comparable to national averages. Nationwide, conservative students are somewhat less likely to say they feel comfortable but this is not the case at Carroll.

Figure 1

We also investigated whether students would consider dis-inviting speakers who might make claims that some find offensive. We asked whether students agreed or disagreed with the statement, “I may want my college to tell a guest speaker he/she is no longer invited to speak if the speaker is:” (please check all that apply). The response options were: Anti-Catholic, Anti-Muslim, Anti-Semitic, Atheist, Homophobic, Racist, Sexist, Socialist, and “None of the above would be a sufficient reason to disinvite the speaker.” We asked this question to the audience at the fall 2019 forum on the Montana campus speech legislation. And we asked the same question again at the end of the debate in the spring of 2021. Figure 2 shows results.

Figure 2

Essay contest and reading group

In the spring of 2020, Dr. Street lead a reading group on free speech on campus and the question of whether this should include the freedom to denigrate social groups such as religious or racial minorities. Students received a stipend and copies of two texts. Students were selected based on essays on the following question:

Should Carroll College prohibit the on-campus expression of ideas that denigrate certain groups of people? If so, why? If not, how can the college ensure that the campus is a welcoming place of learning? Write up to 500 words.