“We are not adopting the Chicago declaration in spite of our religious identity, but because of it.”

That’s what Martin Dotterweich said FIRE when we discussed King’s recent adoption of the Chicago Declaration on freedom of expression this spring.

Kings University is a small, Presbyterian-affiliated Christian liberal arts institution located in Bristol, Tennessee. But with its recent adoption of a declaration on freedom of expression, this small institution has become a standout university, especially among its religiously affiliated peers.

King is the first institution in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities higher education association whose members include more than 150 institutions to take this step.

There is a great need for free speech leadership in universities, but particularly religious establishments.

Although other religious institutions such as Georgetown University and St. Mary’s University have adopted their own versions of the Chicago Declaration, King’s Declaration stands out because it reflects the university’s unique history and attributes its innate appeal to scholarly debate and discussion to the school’s rigorous commitment to the search for truth.

In conversation, Martin a faculty member and chair of the committee who wrote the statement and the president of the university, Alexander “Whit” Whitaker, spoke passionately about the university’s strong commitment to freedom of expression. This mission is embodied in the exemplarity of the school “King’s University Free Speech Statementwhich was enthusiastically endorsed by the President and unanimously adopted by the Faculty and Board of Trustees in February 2022.

“A place of the Christian spirit”

The impetus for the adoption of this type of declaration dates back to the declaration of President Whitaker inaugural speech in 2017. In discussing King’s reputation among faculty, students, and alumni as a “place of the spirit”, Whitaker reflected:

To be in a place of the mind. . . requires discourse and the exchange of ideas with others, and that vulnerability produces civility and respect, including and especially towards those with whom we disagree. I would say it also produces humility and humor, as we learn to laugh at ourselves and our flaws. It invites and embraces true diversity. It builds a vibrant community. It encourages curiosity, experimentation, risk taking and problem solving together. It forces us to see what we have in common with others.

A true advocate of freedom of speech and thought, Whitaker echoed FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, who often urges academic leaders to practice epistemic humility and pre-commit to freedom of expression and inquiry.

Remarkable statement

“Our Christian educational mission demands freedom of inquiry, of expression, of discussion and debate: the freedom to take a firm stand or to remain ambivalent, the freedom to be wrong, the freedom to change one’s mind. ”

This first sentence of king’s declaration affirms a sentiment that so many religious institutions shy away from in official proclamations and policies, outright rejecting the idea that a school’s religious mission and its commitment to unfettered freedom of expression should be in conflict.

The thoughtful and precisely articulated statement is an ode to the highest ideals of self-expression for the purpose of learning from others, discovering new ideas, and finding truth.

“[O]Our Presbyterian heritage encourages us to come together and speak freely,” says the statement, which is a religious tradition that “emphasizes that individuals thinking and discussing together will achieve better results than when speech is coerced or chained.”

With this, the school sends a message to the academic community that King is a place where ideas will be debated and discussed, and not censored or silenced. By publicly endorsing free speech unequivocally, the university can avoid the pitfalls of institutions that have waived free speech when controversy strikes.

Instead of closing the debate, King’s statement paves the way for a discussion of difficult and tense topics with humility and grace.

With this, the school sends a message to the academic community that King is a place where ideas will be debated and discussed, and not censored or silenced.

“We seek the truth relentlessly,” the statement says, but it also urges community members to “speak openly and lovingly to each other, and welcome those who express opposing views.” This is precisely the type of approach that FIRE advocates in our first year orientation programwhich offers lessons on “Talking About Differences,” aimed at educating students about their rights and how to use them responsibly.

As with all statements that qualify as an adoption of the Chicago Declaration, by our standards, the “King’s University Free Speech Statementlists limited exceptions to the general rule of free speech on campus, including “Speech willfully falsifying, defaming others, or undermining the community of free inquiry at King.”

While introducing limited exceptions, King remains mindful that “some prudential considerations may limit free speech in limited cases”, but immediately clarifies that such limited cases are rare and that the university intends to broadly protect freedom of speech. freedom of expression.

“Under the Chicago Declaration,” it continues, “we may” restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that poses a genuine threat or harassment, that unreasonably invades substantial interests in privacy or confidentiality, or which is otherwise directly incompatible with the operation of the University. Quoting directly from the Chicago Declaration itself reinforces the commitment to strong free speech on the King’s University campus.

Additionally, in order to limit substantial disruption on campus, the statement notes that King reserves the right to impose reasonable restrictions on expressive activities, as permitted by First Amendment standards. The statement clarified: “The University may reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of expression to ensure that it does not interfere with its ordinary business.”

A model for religious institutions

“If you have a firmly held belief, you shouldn’t be afraid to question it,” President Whitaker said in an interview with FIRE. This statement embodies King’s approach to faith and learning, as expressed in the university’s commitment.

The search for truth is not only part of the university’s higher education mission, it is also inevitably linked to its religious tradition. As the statement states:

Those called to follow Christ do so with an open mind to truth wherever it may be found, however it may seem to challenge them, and so freedom of expression is vital to our efforts as as a Christian institution. Indeed, King argues that a faith that is both confident and humble is not shy about questioning its very essence.

As campuses across the country face free speech challenges, FIRE sincerely hopes they will recommit to free speech and urge students and faculty to engage in free debate no matter how”unwelcome, unpleasant or even deeply offensivetheir ideas and opinions can be.

There is a great need for free speech leadership in universities, but particularly religious establishments. And King’s University might just do the trick.


Want to encourage your university to engage in speaking out and adopt the Chicago Declaration? Whether you’re a student, faculty member, or administrator, we’ve got expert advice, strategy, and the tools to get your advocacy started. Contact FIRE today to start.


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