This piece was originally published in the Association of College & University Housing Officers-International’s Talking Stick magazine.

The White House isn’t the only institution with 4-year residents unsure what to expect in 2021. For college and university housing officers, PEN America offers some pointers based on our spring survey conducted in partnership with ACUHO-I.

As millions of college students around the country eagerly await the roll-out of a vaccine and the attendant implications for collegiate life, housing officers are busy trying to make the best of a difficult and uncertain situation. Like everything else in the past year, the return to campus this spring is likely to feel different from business-as-usual. The nation is still reckoning with the fallout from a highly polarized presidential election, a wave of mass protests against systemic racism, an unprecedented global pandemic, and a simmering financial crisis.

How will these events impact the climate for dialogue, debate, and understanding on college and university campuses, and in residence halls? If the current state of national debate is any indication, housing officers can expect ongoing tensions. As has been the case in recent years, student residents will likely continue to experience both interpersonal conflicts surrounding language and politics, as well as reverberations from broader ideological clashes on campus and in society, as they make their way from the quad to the common room.

In an effort to gather insight and develop guidelines for housing officers to prepare for and better navigate such day-to-day tensions around free speech, PEN America partnered with ACUHO-I last year to conduct a survey on these challenges. Over a two-week period in July, two hundred and eighty eight housing officers and residential staff responded to our questionnaire, answering a variety of questions related to free speech, diversity, and inclusion in residence life. The survey revealed a range of challenges related to free speech issues in residence life, where tolerance of different viewpoints can be challenging for students and expressions of hate and disrespect can prove difficult to respond to in ways that satisfy all parties involved. The survey findings also suggested that housing officers and residential staff would benefit from more training around these issues, to build up their knowledge and confidence for handling different scenarios.

For example, survey respondents shared that “serious incidents” involving tensions over speech were occurring in student residences before the COVID-19 pandemic with worrying frequency. An overwhelming majority of the housing professionals surveyed said that student residents reported – either to them personally or to a staff member they oversee – instances of intolerant or disrespectful behavior including verbal insults, hateful speech, graffiti or offensive words in public spaces or online. One in three respondents said that in a typical year they deal with one or two “serious incidents” of intolerant or disrespectful behavior. Almost half said that they deal with between 3 and 9 incidents, while 16% of respondents indicated they deal with 10 or more incidents. For these respondents, instances in which they have to mediate these conflicts or respond to these complaints in a typical year are not entirely uncommon, as polarization, disrespect — and in some cases, hate — can be significant challenges in their everyday work.

The survey also affirmed concerns over the targeting of historically underrepresented students. When  asked which groups of residents were most likely to encounter intolerant or disrespectful behavior, those surveyed reported that of the incidents they responded to, the students most likely to be the targets of harmful language and behavior were Black students (76%); gay, lesbian, or bisexual students (66%); transgender students (60%); and women (56%).

“When communicating about instances of hateful speech, starting with a defense of free speech may be alienating for those who are feeling harmed. When reacting to an incident of hateful speech, a range of interests can be better served by first acknowledging it as morally offensive and devoting ample time, energy, and resources towards making sure that those targeted feel secure.”

Given the reckonings with racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia taking place in the U.S. in recent years — and in 2020 especially — this insight may not come as a surprise. But it is nevertheless crucial to be alert to these dynamics when talking about free speech or the First Amendment to those who suffer bullying or harassment. Though there is a long history of free speech being used to critique power structures and advance movements for social justice, student residents might not have much awareness of those legacies, and may be more inclined to see talk of “free speech” as a cover for protecting the powerful and even excusing the marginalization of certain people or groups. Housing officers and residential staff should be attuned to these dynamics, and bear in mind that when communicating about instances of hateful speech, starting with a defense of free speech may be alienating for those who are feeling harmed. While housing officers do have an important role to play in protecting free speech on campus, when reacting to an incident of hateful speech, a range of interests can be better served by first acknowledging it as morally offensive and devoting ample time, energy, and resources towards making sure that those targeted feel secure. It may also be necessary in certain cases to explain that the hateful or harmful speech itself is nonetheless a protected form of speech, but defaulting to that as an initial response risks feeding negative perceptions about the concept of free speech altogether.

Indeed, a general misunderstanding among student residents concerning the First Amendment and its protections was the biggest “challenge to free speech” that respondents cited in our survey, considering it a more significant challenge than the impact of institutional policies or any notion that current students are inclined to be too easily offended. Given the uneven and sometimes poor state of civic education across the country, this lack of understanding around the First Amendment shouldn’t come as a surprise. So many misconceptions prevail on campuses surrounding free speech, and students are largely unfamiliar with how few limited legal thresholds the Supreme Court has qualified as unprotected speech. This dovetails with survey research that has been done by the Freedom Forum Institute in recent years, which consistently shows that few Americans in the general public understand the importance of free speech, with less than 2% able to correctly identify the five freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment. In residence halls, staff should recognize that students may not have much familiarity with these principles, nor an understanding of the responsibility of public institutions in particular to uphold them.

Our survey last summer also surfaced a widespread concern among housing officers over institutional policies and guidelines regarding free speech in student residences. Only one in every four respondents believed that their school’s policies were in “good shape,” while over half indicated that revision was needed. One in ten went so far as to say their policies needed a “complete overhaul.” Arguably, this lack of effective guidance surrounding speech in the context of residence life is leaving staff uncertain how to triage tensions surrounding language and politics when they arise.

This was evident in that only a quarter of respondents said that the training RAs undertake at their institution covers laws and policies covering free speech protections. Although 60% said their training covers how to handle incidents of hateful speech, only 29% felt that their training covers the tensions between free speech and insensitive speech. We suspect that for many, there is a grey area around these terms and how they might most effectively be applied. For example, although large percentages of respondents said they are “somewhat confident” in their abilities to address a variety of free speech issues that might take place in the course of doing their job, fewer than half of the respondents said they were “very confident” in them.

Given these findings, many schools would likely benefit from updating their policies, as well as offering RAs updated training that covers student rights to free expression in the context of residence life, as well as more concrete guidance to staff on how to respond to speech-related incidents and controversies. Housing officers and residential staff alike should be knowledgeable in these issues, and should be equipped to explain to students the importance of protecting a space for open discourse and free expression, even if some share views that are challenging or unpopular. And they should know that offensive expressions that might popularly be referred to as “hate speech” are not necessarily criminal in the U.S., and in many cases, are constitutional. Staff must also understand when speech or hateful acts have crossed the line and fall within the legal definitions of hate crimes and harassment.

These are unquestionably complicated issues, but knowledgeable trainers could not only provide shorthand tips on these legal and rights issues, but also advice about how to respond to speech that is hateful or harmful without engaging in censorship. This has been a touchstone topic taken up by First Amendment experts like Nadine Strossen in her 2018 book Hate: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship. This text and other resources, such as the Campus Free Speech Guide compiled by PEN America, could help housing officers and residential staff consider the range of ways that communities can respond to hateful and harmful speech, including through counter-speech, restorative justice, and allyship.

“Student residents will likely continue to experience both interpersonal conflicts surrounding language and politics, as well as reverberations from broader ideological clashes on campus and in society, as they make their way from the quad to the common room.”

PEN America and ACUHO-I’s survey of housing officers and residence life staff provided us with a snapshot that confirmed our belief that space for open dialogue and discourse is an integral part of residence life at colleges and universities. But it also made clear that regular training about free speech and the First Amendment is needed for staff, resident advisors, and residents themselves, to provide a healthy climate for speech that allows all to speak and be heard. The survey offered a reminder that addressing the real disparities of harm facing students from historically marginalized and underrepresented identities is an essential part of ensuring free speech for all on campus.

The events of 2020 have shown the power of activism and protest, and in the wake of a contentious election, robust debate is likely to continue to be prevalent on campuses in the coming year. It is vital that campus authorities react to any such expressive acts fairly and consistently, regardless of the political views being promoted, and allow student residents to use the power of their voices to debate challenging issues and call for change. The opportunities to debate, but also to listen to those with whom one might disagree, should be hallmark experiences of collegiate life that are not only found in academic classrooms, but also experienced holistically in students’ campus lives, including in their housing communities. Given our increasingly enclosed ideological bubbles, campuses are one of the few places where people have the opportunity to encounter and engage with people who think differently from them, and residence life can play a vital role in facilitating those opportunities for understanding.

Housing officers planning for the return of their students this spring should continue to equip themselves with knowledge of principles and practical guidelines that can harmonize protections for free expression with efforts to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus. This will not only help to mitigate potential clashes, but ensure residence spaces are nurturing, welcoming and supportive communities for all students.

PEN America’s Principles on Campus Free Speech and the digital Campus Free Speech Guide offer tailored guidance for students, faculty, staff, and administrators to respond thoughtfully to challenges relating to free speech and inclusion. To learn more, please visit or email us at [email protected].