Free Expression at Duke: What Do Freshmen Blue Devils Think?

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As director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Campus Free Expression Project, I am always eager to get beyond the DC beltway to learn how students understand free expression on their particular campus. So, to return to Duke University, my alma mater, was particularly welcome.

Duke has a legacy of defending the expression of controversial views. In 1903, the school set a new standard in defending faculty academic freedom when the trustees voted to reject history professor John Bassett’s offer to resign after his praise of Booker T. Washington sparked controversy for the school—this only three years after Leland Stanford’s widow was able to have Edward Ross dismissed from the faculty of Stanford for arguments contrary to Mrs. Stanford’s business interests.

Duke - Scientist - John - H - Hallowell

It was Duke political scientist John H. Hallowell who arranged to have Martin Luther King, Jr. address the 1964 annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association when it was held in Durham, at a time when not all in attendance were keen on King’s Civil Rights message.

But that is Duke’s past—what about today?

Visit - Fall - Duke - Student - Government

Just before my visit last fall, the Duke Student Government refused to recognize a Christian group, Young Life, that would not allow LBGTQ+ leaders. (A federal judge twice this year ruled that the University of Iowa violated the free speech, free association, and free exercise of religion rights with refusals to recognize Christian groups for parallel reasons). Also, Duke declined to renew the contract of an instructor who had taught at Duke for two decades apparently because, as he described at this site, he encouraged classroom discussions of polarizing and controversial topics.

Is support among Duke students for free expression and the First Amendment eroding?

October - Chance - Sixty - Students - Conversation

Back in October, I had my chance to find out. Sixty freshmen students came for a conversation on those topics. Leading the conversation were Duke Professor...
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