How to use PEN America’s Campus Free Speech Guide

This Guide offers practical, principled advice on free speech and inclusion on U.S. college campuses. It was developed based on extensive work by PEN America’s Campus Free Speech Project, which began in 2016 with the launch of our landmark report And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Freedom of Speech at U.S. Universities. Since then, we have facilitated dialogues and held events on over a dozen campuses across the country, published commentary and engaged in advocacy on campus free speech issues, and published a second research report in 2019, Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America. In developing this Guide, we also consulted hundreds of university students, faculty, and administrators.

Designed as a go-to resource for the higher education sector, this Guide contains five main sections:

  1. PEN America’s Principles on Campus Free Speech
  2. Advice organized by major issues (e.g., academic freedom, hateful speech, controversial speakers)
  3. Advice targeted to different roles on campus, organized into three major categories: administrator, faculty, and student
  4. A law section with an overview of statutes and precedents related to free speech at both public and private institutions of higher education
  5. A resources section providing: checklists for administrators responding to common scenarios; sample campus policies related to speech and inclusion; sample statements by senior leaders in response to controversies; case studies with examples of how schools have navigated these challenges; and profiles of useful external resources from campuses, think tanks, and nonprofit organizations representing a range of perspectives on these issues.

Together these sections contain advice for responding to speech-related controversies as well as guidance for proactive steps to avert such controversies and promote free speech and inclusion. At PEN America we do not believe in one-size-fits-all prescriptions. We have deliberately kept much of the advice broad to allow it to be adapted to different contexts. Many heated situations on campus require quick decisions and community-specific responses, and statements from institutional leaders will resonate more powerfully when they are authentic rather than overly scripted.

Campus speech controversies involve not just legal issues but also debates about morality, respect, and politics. Our guiding principles in these debates center on a belief that campuses should strive to be open to the most speech from the most people. While there are deep divisions on these issues, PEN America has seen that dialogue across lines of difference can be remarkably effective in mitigating polarization.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on the guide, please feel free to submit them through our feedback form.

Why free speech and inclusion?

In today’s debate over free speech on campus, our philosophy is guided by the 1948 PEN Charter to stand for the “unhampered transmission of thought,” to “oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression,” and to “dispel race, class, and national hatreds.” We believe that for a campus to be open to all ideas, it must be genuinely open to all people, including those from less traditional backgrounds and those from previously excluded groups.  We believe that campuses can and must robustly defend free speech and open inquiry at the same time that they advance principles of diversity and inclusion, as well as address lingering legacies of discrimination. By acknowledging and addressing legitimate concerns about racism and bigotry in the context of free speech debates, universities and colleges can help ensure that the defense of freedom of expression is not misconstrued as a cause that is at odds with movements for social justice.

This Guide reflects our efforts to uphold and advance the principles of free speech and inclusion in tandem, recognizing that college campuses are foundational to the future of civic life and often the catalyst for wider social change. Free expression is the bedrock of an open, democratic society, and administrators and faculty have an obligation to model a commitment to these principles and to strive to inculcate this commitment among the rising generation.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

Founded in 1922, PEN America is the largest of the more than 100 centers worldwide that make up the PEN International network. PEN America works to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others. Our strength is our Membership—a nationwide community of more than 7,200 novelists, journalists, scholars, nonfiction writers, editors, poets, essayists, playwrights, publishers, translators, agents, and other writing professionals, as well as devoted readers and supporters who join with them to carry out PEN America’s mission. Our Members live in every state, and our PEN Across America initiative, launched in 2018, responds to mounting threats to free expression with opportunities for Members and their allies to mobilize locally through public programming, campaigns, literary events, workshops, civic forums, and other projects that expand engagement with PEN America’s mission.


PEN America is grateful to the hundreds of students, faculty, and administrators who have engaged with this project, and especially to those who offered detailed and substantive feedback on earlier versions of this site. The Campus Free Speech Guide was made possible by the generous support of our funders.

Disclaimer: Nothing on this website constitutes, nor should be construed, as legal advice on any matter. All content on the website is for informational purposes only. PEN America is not liable for any errors or omissions in the information and is not liable for any injuries or damages related to the display of the information on this website.