Wednesday, May 22

Balancing Free Speech and Inclusion: Four Simple Strategies for Campus Leaders

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Jonathan FriedmanDrawing on recent work by PEN America, Jonathan Friedman presents four simple strategies that campus leaders can employ to signal their support of these principles and to proactively prepare a campus community to be steeled against speech-related controversies.

These include:

  • Establishing Core Institutional Values
  • Becoming Vociferous Advocates for Speech
  • Distinguishing Between Permitting Speech and Condoning Its Content
  • Promoting a Climate of Listening

Ask a group of deans or college leaders what worries them in 2019, and among the responses are bound to be concerns about free speech and inclusion. Some might state outright that they believe their campuses have become hostile to open inquiry; but many might express concern with how the principle of free speech has been seized upon to promote hateful sentiments, or to demean colleges and universities in the public’s mind. Others might worry that supporting free speech can be in tension with socially progressive goals in higher education like diversity, equity, and inclusion, and wish that this was not an obligation they had to uphold. Regardless of their personal dispositions, many leaders would lament the politicization of campus speech, which has generally brought more headaches than easy answers.

At a time when hate crimes and incidents of hateful speech have both been on the rise, and the population of students on campuses has grown increasingly diverse, college leaders cannot sit idly on the sidelines. It is imperative that campus leaders face these issues head-on, taking both proactive steps to anticipate new challenges and the responsive measures necessary to mitigate controversies if they arise. College leaders should redouble their efforts to understand the legal context surrounding the First Amendment and academic freedom, and invest in strategies to educate their staff, faculty, and students about these issues as well.

At PEN America, this is a key aim undergirding our recent report, Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America—to provide a synoptic view of many of the most controversial speech-related incidents on campuses in the past two years, and to provide college administrators with clear principles that can guide their strategies in the face of these challenges. PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide; our mission is to both celebrate the written word and defend the liberties that make it possible.

We believe that free expression must be defended robustly on U.S. campuses, but, as we argue in the report, we do not believe that a commitment to defending free speech necessitates that colleges relinquish other core values like fostering an inclusive, equitable learning environment. The best step forward, rather, is for college leaders to recognize their obligation to support both free speech and inclusion, and to find ways of balancing these important principles.

There are many ways college leaders might do this, but as a start, here are four concrete strategies that administrators can adopt in the face of these challenges.

Establish Core Institutional Values

If your institution has little in the way of a statement of mission or values, then this is an important place to start. The ‘Chicago Principles’ on free speech are one template for such an institutional statement; but it is also possible to craft statements that simultaneously encompass the values of diversity and inclusion, as was done, for example, at Colgate University in 2018. At PEN America, we have put forth our own Principles on Campus Free Speech to support colleges in these efforts. We believe that articulating institutional values clearly and unequivocally as a proactive measure can go a long way in a time of crisis, because the intellectual work of showing how these values are both supported and prioritized will already have been established.

For students from historically marginalized backgrounds who have sometimes questioned whether they belong on some campuses, or who have been the deliberate targets of hateful speech, having a clear statement of institutional values around inclusion and diversity—in tandem with free speech—can also help demonstrate what the college community is strongly committed to. These institutional commitments reside above and unrelated to the expressive actions of the individuals on a campus, and therefore, when proclaimed confidently and assuredly, they can help these communities feel more secure in the face of noxious or aberrant speech. Administrators’ reactions to these circumstances will be much enhanced if they can point to a clear set of community values that such speech contravenes. And if a campus has been clear in their commitment to these principles, it will be harder for critics to say they are supporting one at the expense of the other—getting out in front of those who would pit free speech and inclusion against each other.

College students in dialogue. PEN America event at NYU in November 2018, co-sponsored with the Penn Project for Civic Engagement and NYU Steinhardt

Become Vociferous Advocates for Speech

Second, campus leaders can cast themselves as staunch defenders of free speech or academic freedom explicitly and frequently, countering any narrative that they are hostile to these principles. They can proactively introduce measures to help students understand the legal context for free speech, including as it applies to their campus, and begin initiatives that encourage students to see college as a time to find their voices. Such measures could go hand-in-hand with colleges’ long-standing commitments to civic engagement or global citizenship, framing the right to free speech for all as a necessary correlate.

It has been an enduring notion that offensive speech can be met with “more speech,” or “counter-speech;” but campus leaders could do more to prepare for such moments by preemptively nurturing a campus climate where the principle of supporting the most speech, by the most people, is already widely respected as an institutional norm. This strategy has the added benefit of priming a campus community to engage in creative and effective protest and counter-speech in the face of hateful or noxious speech, in line with a “more-speech” mantra.

This strategy could involve reviewing institutional policies that might impede speech, such as those related to “free speech zones,” or opportunities for tabling for student clubs, all with a mind to making the campus environment as open to speech as possible. Coupled with a clear institutional statement on the values of free speech and inclusion, this strategy could help steel campus communities against potential powderkegs that can erupt when students feel either silenced, unheard, or hurt by offensive speech.

Distinguish Between Permitting Speech and Condoning Its Content

A third, related strategy for college leaders is to make clear that just because they permit speech within their environs, does not mean that they condone or approve of all such speech. At most institutions, numerous bodies have the authority to invite speakers, including academic departments, individual professors, student groups, and the university as a whole. Campuses should strive to remain an open forum for diverse ideas and also encourage these bodies to engage in careful, deliberative processes when determining whom to invite.

But being open in this way does not require that colleges forsake a clear moral or ethical voice. Although some proposals in state legislatures have stipulated that campuses should remain politically neutral to any ideas or speech, there are situations where it is important that universities and colleges honor their ethical and legal obligations to providing a learning environment that is equitable to all. In circumstances where the content of speech contravenes these obligations, campus leaders can simultaneously signal their duties under the First Amendment to allow the speech to proceed, as well as communicate their disapproval of it.

While giving any speaker a university-affiliated platform inevitably confers a degree of legitimacy, the right kind of messaging by campus leadership can effectively undermine that legitimacy, making clear that a speaker does not speak with the full imprimatur of the institution. It is likely that the more they have supported a climate for free speech in general, the more that campus leaders will be able to give voice to their own institutional views as nuanced in this manner.

Promote a Climate of Listening

In tandem with a commitment to free speech on campus, a fourth strategy for campus leaders to employ is a commitment to listening. Arguably one of the biggest challenges in U.S. politics is increasing polarization, and campuses provide a unique opportunity for individuals from different backgrounds to commingle in a diverse community dedicated to intellectual inquiry. This does not mean that campuses must give credence to all views on any subject. But at a minimum this strategy entails finding ways of teaching students to engage in dialogue and listen in good faith to a diversity of interlocutors, as a means of developing their own civic and political identities.

For many, deep listening will be a skill that needs to be developed and honed, and college leaders should be as attentive as possible to creating the conditions that make that learning possible. Through town halls, dialogue events, and other forums for exchanging views and feedback, campus leaders can provide students opportunities to not just find their voices, but to practice listening to the views of others. These tactics can also set a tone on campus that the institution cares about and listens to its constituents.

Promoting inclusion in this way can be allied with promoting free speech, with the result that all students on campus will have opportunities not only to speak but to be heard, and to be taken seriously. When speakers come to campus, it might also be mandated that they listen to students as part of Q&A sessions to ensure that such occasions, even when controversial, have opportunities for dialogue. The more campuses can promote listening in tandem with free speech and inclusion, the more they will be able to provide students with a model of democratic engagement that they might emulate through future civic participation and in their professional careers.

These strategies represent only a handful that college leaders might embrace in support of free speech and inclusion, and they do not represent the full breadth of challenges related to supporting open inquiry or academic freedom, particularly among faculty or in the classroom. However, as large, segmented organizations, the task that often falls to college leaders is to articulate the overarching visions that bind them together. The four strategies summarized here have value precisely because they are both practical and symbolic, encompassing broad principles that can be adopted in diverse institutions and applied in different circumstances.

For college leaders to be successful at navigating today’s culture war over campus speech, they will have to recognize the need for not just reactive measures, but for these broader symbolic principles that can be adopted proactively. Putting forth a positive view of how campuses can balance free speech and inclusion will pay numerous dividends. Arguably, there has never been a more pressing time for college leaders to speak up and articulate their positions on these issues.

This article is from our May 15, 2019 issue. Read the full newsletter here!


About the author:

Jonathan Friedman is the project director for campus free speech at PEN America where he oversees advocacy, analysis, and outreach in the national debate around free speech and inclusion in higher education. Prior to joining PEN America, Friedman was an adjunct professor at NYU and Columbia University, teaching courses in comparative and international education, higher education, and social theory. His research on American and international higher education looks at such topics as university administration, organizational cultures, nationalism, and cross-cultural understanding. Friedman holds a Ph.D. in International Education from NYU, and has received awards for his teaching, research, and leadership.

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