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The first step toward free speech in college?

Pretty awesome. Imagine a whole new generation of kids learning how to think critically and have an open mind!

A Glimmer of Hope in Higher Education

The Open Discourse Coalition, a new organization that champions free speech, is thriving.

By Susan J. Crawford and Kenneth G. Langone, WSJ

Oct. 3, 2023 4:14 pm ET

The president of Bucknell University, John Bravman, stood behind a placard bearing the words “Freedom of Expression” last month and kicked off a yearlong forum on the subject. Mr. Bravman introduced columnist George Will, who inveighed against censorship for 45 minutes, skewering both political parties in the process.

It was a dream come true, considering the cancel culture flourishing on many college campuses. In 2021 we wrote a letter in these pages with the headline “Alumni Are Fed Up and Ready to Fight Back.” We saw what was happening at our alma mater and colleges nationwide and decided to do something about it.

We began Open Discourse Coalition, an alumni and student-supported organization. The coalition is an independent, nonprofit organization with an office blocks from Bucknell University. Its goal is to advance the school’s mission to offer students diversity of thought with an unwavering commitment to free speech.

Prominent speakers, confident they will be heard, have been drawn to Bucknell to discuss and debate national issues, with students from the right and left turning out in large numbers. Experts on some of society’s thorniest topics have civilly discussed, disagreed and answered challenging questions from students.

It “was not nearly as polarized as what I expected,” one student wrote in response to a program. Another: “I was pleasantly surprised at how civil the conversation [was] and highly appreciated the respect both views gave each other.” One professor told us it was the first time he heard two differing perspectives on gun control at the same program in more than 20 years on campus.

Bucknell students can also participate in workshops, small group meetings and one-on-one mentoring. A select group of upperclassmen spend every Saturday in September studying leadership. The seminar is so popular it doubled in size by its second year and had a wait list in its third year.

Open Discourse Coalition also sponsors a faculty association—the Bucknell Program for American Leadership. Members support cultural and ideological diversity within the tradition of the liberal arts. They have hosted programs for students featuring such speakers as Jason Riley, Naomi Schaefer Riley, Jordan Peterson and Edward Snowden.

Our organization’s effect is spreading. Students from Susquehanna University, 15 minutes away, have begun attending Open Discourse Coalition programs at Bucknell and are asking how they can have this on their campus. The Alumni Free Speech Alliance, which began with five groups in 2021, has added 11 more, including Open Discourse Coalition.

While many speakers on college campuses are still being shouted down, Open Discourse Coalition’s success signals that civil discourse is possible. We must make universities centers for the free exchange of ideas.

Judge Crawford is a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and chairman emerita of Bucknell’s board of trustees. Mr. Langone is a co-founder of Home Depot.

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