What is college administrators' role in protecting free speech on campus?
- The issue of free speech on college campuses has become "a deeply partisan feud" that reflects national political discourse but is not the full-on crisis that has been suggested, explains a new report from literary group PEN America that advises higher education administrators on how to address the topic on their campuses.
- Examining more than 100 free-speech incidents in recent years and informed by meetings at colleges that experienced such controversies, the report discusses the need to balance the twin desires of protecting free speech and maintaining an open and inclusive campus in a country that is growing more diverse while contending with a history of racism.
- The authors put the onus on college administrators to "rise to the challenge" of helping students understand what qualifies as free speech, and what does not, and they encourage observers to view college as "a time for education, exploration, and growth."
The report follows a notably vague executive order that President Donald Trump signed last month that connects a public university's eligibility for federal research funding to its ability to "promote free inquiry." PEN America explains in an executive summary of its 100-plus-page report that the language of the order stands in "stark contrast" to the president's own "rhetoric on the issue" and therefore could cause colleges to inordinately crack down on free speech so as not to risk losing funds.
While signing the order, Trump named several practices that he views as preventing free speech, including speech codes, safe spaces and trigger warnings. Several observers have contended the order was created largely to appease his conservative supporters and that it lacks teeth.
The issue of free speech is not so distinctly partisan on college campuses, PEN America's report argues. Instead, the authors explain, students on all sides are trying to qualify or defend their values as they are understood in the broader national context. However, some of those efforts — intentionally or not — fall beyond the often-disputed bounds of free speech.
The report cites a range of examples, from presidential campaign slogans chalked on sidewalks spurring controversy to explicit examples of racism and hateful behavior, such as an account of a Latina student whose roommate built a makeshift "wall" out of shoes, toiletries and other objects in their room with a note reading: "Trump won so here is a little preview of what's to come. #wall"
Trump's "divisive rhetoric and policies" have further blurred the lines between civic discourse and hate speech, the authors write. That shift must be acknowledged in order to properly address the free speech concern at hand, they say. Meanwhile, campus groups have increased pressure on administrators to "police the speech" of stakeholders across campus.
The authors task administrators and faculty with educating students on which behaviors count as free speech and which impede others' rights, as well as on the importance of the civil liberty more broadly. "Campus leaders must hold a strong line against tactics that silence speech and prevent students from hearing and engaging with a range of perspectives," the authors write.
They are wary, however, of legislation to help enforce these concepts. Citing more than 30 states that have proposed or passed laws on the topic, they say legal intervention in higher ed governance could further polarize the issue.
Industry efforts are also underway to support free speech on campus. For instance, the Chicago Principles, which were developed in 2015 to publicly and uniformly show commitment to free inquiry and expression, can help "instill a common culture of free speech and openness to debate," the authors write. They have since been adopted by nearly 60 universities and systems.
However, the authors contend the principles lack clear guidance for administrators addressing a free speech controversy on their campus. Others have said such principles are not as effective as they could be because the situations they are designed to address are all different.
The authors wrap up their extensive report with an updated list of principles they suggest could help administrators respond to free speech issues.
They include reexamining how the physical and organizational structure of the institution factors into concerns over openness; keeping platforms open to a range of views and supporting "speech and reasoned debate" as a way to address opposing views; not requiring administrative approval for campus speakers; and cautioning faculty about the risks inherent with sharing their personal views on social media.
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