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Is free speech at-risk on today’s college campuses?


A certain former vice presidents’ speech earlier this week at the University of Virginia went fairly smoothly, with a standing ovation to greet him and only about a dozen protestors outside Old Cabell Hall where he spoke. But that came after a fractious campus debate in which students, faculty and the president and provost wrote dueling editorials and letters in the campus newspaper, with some defending the freedom to extend the invitation and others arguing that the event would violate the university’s values and harm historically marginalized communities.

The controversy over Mike Pence’s appearance won’t be the last one on campuses this year, especially with commencement season on the horizon. Speaker controversies, in fact, have been happening for decades; they pop up from coast to coast, and target some of the most prominent speakers of both the right and left.

It is one part of a larger problem: academic freedom and free expression are under mounting attack, constraining the intellectual climate on campuses. Faculty are not exploring certain subjects or voicing their opinions even off campus; students are self-censoring, and administrators are disinviting speakers and cancelling events. All of that is degrading the civic mission of higher education, which is to prepare students for participation as independent thinkers in our democracy.

To restore free expression on campus, colleges must address the perceived tension between academic freedom and diversity, equity and inclusion; encourage more viewpoint diversity on campus; protect free expression for students and faculty; and nourish the skills for academic and civic discourse.

Speaker controversies create the perception that members of Generation Z are “snowflakes,” unwilling to hear views that differ from their own, but the data suggests otherwise: most undergraduates crave hearing viewpoints from across the political spectrum.

Only about a fifth of students disagreed that colleges “should allow students to be exposed to all types of speech even if they may find it offensive or biased,” according to a recent national survey of students. Five out of six students rate free speech rights as “very” or “extremely” important to our democracy.

If students want to hear a wide range of opinions, why do so many campus free speech controversies break out? The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Academic Leaders Task Force studied the issue and identified several factors.

First, a censorious minority has an outsized impact on campus culture. The survey cited above found one in three students supports a campus speech code; one in four supports disinviting a speaker whom some find biased or offensive; and one in five supports restricting the expression of political views that upset or offend some.

Second, students who want to hear or express unorthodox views lack the skills and confidence to do so. A student in a focus group described the pressure not to be seen listening to unpopular views. He and a friend “were planning to go to [a controversial speaker] event, like sit in the back row and just kind of take a look. But honestly there are so many protests outside of it that like we’re making us [sic] feel really bad about going.”

Third, and most importantly, two-thirds of students say that free speech rights “occasionally” or “frequently” conflict with diversity and inclusion. Faced with a perceived conflict between inclusion and free speech, many understandably prioritize inclusion.

Reviving academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus will require the efforts of college presidents, trustees, staff and faculty, according to the BPC’s Academic Leaders Task Force report, “Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap.”

Presidents and their leadership teams, for example, should articulate the principles of free expression, envision what a robust culture of open inquiry would look like in their campus communities, and identify priority areas for strengthening or clarifying policies, programs and curricula. They should speak regularly about free expression — not only on special occasions — and be ready to respond to controversies with a clear, consistent and fair approach. Presidents must use their own leadership capital to discuss and model the connection between an inclusive campus with a respectful learning environment and viewpoint diversity.

Trustees should consider issuing their own public resolutions to affirm their college’s free expression policies; they can play an essential role in supporting the leadership team as they defend the freedom of community members to express themselves in controversial ways.

Faculty should create a respectful learning environment for students, such as by setting curricula and departmental learning outcomes that build the skills of robust academic debate and by analyzing multiple perspectives.

Nevertheless, while formal protections for controversial expression are necessary, they are insufficient to provide for open inquiry and free expression. Robust intellectual exchange is ultimately a matter of culture, and it depends on the virtues of intellectual clarity, rigor, empathy, respect and humility, and on widespread community trust.

Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill is director of the Campus Free Expression Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Tags Academic freedom free speech on college campuses Mike Pence

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