Colleges must protect free speech, but not when students feel unsafe

Colleges must protect free speech, but not when students feel unsafe
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The new academic year is now well upon us with the return of hundreds of thousands of students to college this fall. And it’s a time unlike any in recent memory. The nation’s political divide is stark and conspicuous on campuses across the country where protests centering on issues of race, religion and free speech are rampant.

Moreover, with our 24/7 news cycle and incessant social media, student debates are often no longer just for campus discussion. They can become headlines for our nation. Most recently, “Free Speech Week” at the University of California in Berkeley was launched into the news, only later to be cancelled by the student group organizing it.

In today’s world, whether on the topic of the Berkeley dispute or student protests about racist incidents, graduation speakers, immigration policy and so much more, we face a steady, rapid-fire torrent of claims and opinions, from enlightening and informed to ignorant and vicious. One tweet or post, often far removed from reality on the ground, can transform a smoldering campus ember into a raging national fire.

My hope is that all of us — policymakers, politicians, higher education leaders, and students — exercise a bit of calm reflection when engaging in the debate commanding the day’s news. Part of that reflection should include recognition of some of the defining principles surrounding America’s higher education system that, when followed, can provide great value for us all.

First, an essential and defining mission of higher education is to be welcoming and inclusive for all students, regardless of their backgrounds and experiences and to encourage diversity of thought and expression, even when certain views may be offensive to some. Celebrated U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell recognized that furthering the “robust exchange of ideas” is “of paramount importance” to higher education’s mission in America. That view is as true today as it was nearly four decades ago.

That said, to recognize that the aims of inclusion and free expression are not mutually exclusive is to recognize that these constitutionally grounded rights are also not absolute. A balancing of interests is almost always implicated as institutions grapple with the resolution of tough issues, and as courts sometimes review and evaluate those decisions.

Even as we embrace a higher education mission that invites challenge and debate, we must be clear that all students, regardless of background, experience or circumstance, are and feel authentically valued as part of their school community. That means that even as we allow for expression that some may find offensive, higher education leaders also cannot condone an environment where students are unsafe, feel threatened, and where their self-expression is undermined.

This is often a delicate balance, to be sure. But it remains a balance we must strike, particularly as these goals are reinforced by our federal laws that ensure nondiscrimination as well as rights of free expression. To state the obvious, those laws must be read, understood and applied in tandem. The principles of the Constitution and federal laws that have followed do not constitute a menu from which to pick and choose.

Second, we must recognize that the answer to discourse that is challenging, uncomfortable — even, at times, offensive — isn’t to shut it down, but to engage, directly. More speech, not less, is one hallmark of our Constitution’s vision and our nation’s education experience. And this means that rather than retreat into the comfort zone of cable news favorites, Facebook friends and Twitter followers, policymakers and educators must actually model the ways of discourse that provide the blueprint for our students to follow, with civility, respect and openness to the differing views of others.

Correspondingly, the imperative that higher education leaders and faculty provide the opportunities for many voices on campus does not require that they abdicate their leadership roles or lose their voice along the way. Higher education leaders and faculty are called to educate by building bridges where they can, opening minds and eyes when they have the opportunity, supporting those who are targeted by hate, and fearlessly posing questions and listening, even when they lack all of the answers.

Third, given that the audience for campus dialogue, with a simple click, is potentially worldwide, we all have a role to play as we work to lead by example. Higher education leaders must endeavor to reach out to all, supporting words with visible examples of sustained engagement with students and others in multiple venues, on multiple topics, and in times that are challenging, as well as those that are not. They can lead by example with success, and create opportunities for learning when results aren’t optimal.

Policymakers in our nation’s capital and in states around the country can also serve an important leadership role in such settings, redoubling their efforts to understand all dimensions of an issue, including, yes, facts on the ground. While expression of views through Twitter may at times be appropriate, sometimes what needs to be said can’t be reduced to 140 characters. We should all fully understand that difference.

In the end, we would all serve our institutions and our country well by remembering the obvious. Grounded in our nation’s finest traditions, the promotion of a “robust exchange of ideas” helps advance student growth and development through dialogue, debate and dissent. As importantly, it requires an “exchange” — and that means listening, as well as talking.

Art Coleman is a founding and managing partner of Education Counsel, an affiliate of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough. He served as deputy assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education during the Clinton administration.