Profile: James G. Martin Center Works for Free Speech, Viewpoint Diversity

Published March 24, 2020

Higher education is in a state of disarray, with students and parents worrying about bloated loan balances and the value of college and others concerned about schools abandoning the pursuit of truth in favor of conformity to fashionable ideologies.

A 2018 Gallup Poll found Americans’ trust in higher education dropped nearly 10 percent between 2015 and 2018, the largest decline of confidence in any institution that year, and an all-time low for higher ed.

Fortunately, several organizations are working to restore and renew higher education. The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal (formerly the Pope Center), was founded in Raleigh, North Carolina in 2003 and focuses on areas in need of reform, two of which are free speech and viewpoint diversity.

Greenlighting Free Speech

Since its founding, the Martin Center has defended freedom of expression on campus, with a special focus on colleges and universities in North Carolina. Too often, colleges censor speech because many disagree with it or even find it hateful.

In 2009, for example, at UNC-Chapel Hill, protesters chased former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo off campus for his views on immigration. A recent  survey found 41 percent of college students believe “hate speech” should not be protected under the First Amendment.

Nevertheless, North Carolina has experienced numerous successes for free speech. The North Carolina Campus Free Speech Act, enacted in 2017, protects the speech rights of everyone on campus. Twelve universities in North Carolina have earned the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s “green light” rating, which means they have no barriers to free speech. Ten years ago, no North Carolina schools had a green-light rating.

Promoting Intellectual Diversity

The Martin Center also advocates viewpoint diversity—that is, allowing a broad range of perspectives to be studied, discussed, and debated. Colleges and universities frequently engage in initiatives to increase racial and gender diversity but exclude diversity of thought.

“A recent survey of humanities and social science professors found registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans by 11.5 to 1,” said Jane Shaw Stroup, chair of the Martin Center’s board of directors. “That’s just one indication of a mindset frequently hostile to conservative or libertarian thought.”

The Martin Center encourages colleges and universities to adopt their own version of a statement by the University of Chicago, the “Chicago Principles,” which affirm the university’s commitment to free and open discourse.

“Students’ rights don’t end when they step on university campuses, especially if those campuses are public,” said Jenna A. Robinson, the Martin Center’s president. “That’s why we promote policies that protect students’ rights to free speech and due process.

“It’s important students retain their constitutional protections, no matter where they are,” said Robinson.

Shannon Watkins ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.