There’s Been a Lot of Talk About Campus Free Speech Problems. It’s Time to Focus on Solutions
This piece was originally published on Heterodox Academy.
Two months into the new school year and it’s clear that free speech challenges on campus are not going away. Amid ongoing tensions over censorious protests, controversial speakers, and resignations, there have been new lawsuits over student organizations and bias response systems that continue to make waves. The federal government has issued a new warning to area studies centers that their funding could be jeopardized if they’re deemed to be biased or insufficiently “balanced.” And at Georgia Southern, a group of students responded to a conversation about race and white privilege with fiction writer Jennine Capó Crucet by burning her books immediately after she spoke on the campus.
Who is to blame for this flurry of censorship, threats, and silencing? Is it overbearing parents, young activists, or spineless administrators? Is it Donald Trump, the stubborn legacy of racism and bigotry, or the machinations of a right-wing conspiracy?
Much of the national conversation has revolved around this kind of finger-pointing. But the media sensationalism has rarely addressed the very real challenges that administrators and faculty face day-to-day, and there has been a surprising dearth of practical and proactive solutions. Meanwhile, elected representatives at the state and federal levels have been emboldened to enact solutions of their own—solutions that either risk jeopardizing the rights of protesters or mandate new oversight mechanisms that may impinge on academic freedom and university autonomy.
While there’s surely no one-size-fits-all to these challenges, at PEN America, where I work, our aim has been to help colleges and universities navigate this terrain. In my research, consultations, and workshops on these issues across the country, provosts, deans, and faculty have conveyed a shared yearning for creative ideas and best practices. One administrator told me that he hopes for a day where he can say confidently that his institution has reacted fairly and consistently to the various speech-related incidents that arise.
Part of the challenge is that many recent debates on campus related to free speech are not only about speech at their heart, but also about reckoning with racism and legitimate calls to address deficits in equity and inclusion. From efforts to shut down speeches by ICE officials to challenges around bias response teams, the common thread is how university officials can respond in ways that support free speech, but also uphold these other core institutional values.
Even when administrators are well-versed in the First Amendment, the scenarios they confront demand more than just knowledge of the law. They need to be able to explain the concept and history of free speech to those who may not have any familiarity with it. They need to know how to encourage “more speech” in the face of speech that community members find hateful and repugnant. And they need to know their own rights and obligations with respect to free speech, both as citizens and as employees.
Yet in a political climate where administrators have received outsized scrutiny, criticism has been in much greater supply than guidance. The administrators and faculty we talk to often want to do the right thing and be principled in their responses. But they could use a little help.
That’s why we launched a new website, the PEN America Campus Free Speech Guide, a first-of-its-kind digital resource offering practical, step-by-step guidance for a range of speech-related scenarios. Pulling together the collective wisdom of hundreds of students, faculty, and administrators, the advice in our guide is based on a set of core principles, the centerpiece of which is that the precepts of free speech and inclusion must be balanced, and that they are mutually reinforcing. After all, freedom of speech is only protected when there are equitable opportunities for all to be heard, and equity and inclusion are advanced only when all have the right to speak.
Our guidance also aims to help tamp down crises before they escalate, encouraging dialogue, listening, and facilitating opportunities for community members to be heard. While campus leaders cannot protect their communities from all controversies that may blow-up over speech, they can work to promote education on free expression and inclusion by taking proactive measures. That can help inoculate their campuses so that future dust-ups are less volatile.
The stakes are high. If administrators cannot find positive and effective solutions to the challenges they confront, legislators might continue to intervene. Administrators must also balance upholding their institutional values with avoiding the appearance of—or actual—political bias. The more that they appear flat-footed on free speech issues, the more they will give partisans the legitimacy they seek to censor their political adversaries. That would not only be a crisis for free speech on campus, but would surely have alarming ramifications for the ability of faculty and students to ask tough questions — running contrary to an environment where no question is supposed to be out of bounds.
What works at one institution may not be right for another. What we have tried to provide is a common frame of reference, collating sample statements and policies, as well as profiles of how various institutions have handled a range of circumstances. At the end of the day, those on the frontlines of these controversies are the ones best placed to make decisions about how to respond to them. Our guide is intended to help administrators and faculty make those decisions with confidence.
While there is sometimes a fine needle to be threaded, campus leaders can navigate today’s controversies with great thoughtfulness, nuance, and care. Let’s hope that they are ready to rise to the challenge.