Inclusive Freedom: How to Protect Free Speech for Our Students

15762Today, we have a guest post from Sigal Ben-Porath, Professor of Education, Political Science, and Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the exciting and timely new book Free Speech on Campus. From the University of California, Berkeley, to Middlebury College, institutions of higher learning increasingly find themselves on the front lines of cultural and political battles over free speech. Repeatedly, students, faculty, administrators, and politically polarizing invited guests square off against one another, assuming contrary positions on the limits of thought and expression, respect for differences, the boundaries of toleration, and protection from harm. In Free Speech on Campus, Ben-Porath examines the current state of the arguments, using real-world examples to explore the contexts in which conflicts erupt, as well as to assess the place of identity politics and concern with safety and dignity within them. Here, she distills some of her important insights, discussing how the framework of inclusive freedom can help reconcile both sides of these ongoing debates.

Free speech on college and university campuses is not only a way for them to function within the broader democratic context, but also a way for them to fulfill their unique mission. To understand the current tensions around free speech we need to recognize this mission, which is both enduring and changing. The enduring mission of colleges and universities is to pursue and expand knowledge, and to introduce it to the next generation—in other words, colleges and universities are always about research and teaching, missions that must be pursued in a context that is free of coercion, censorship, and silencing. In addition, colleges and universities, many of which we once training grounds for leadership and accessible mostly to white men of a privileged background, are now expected to teach and train a larger and more diverse segment of the population (if in 1990 there were fewer than 14 million American students across all institutions, two decades later there were over 21 million). Free speech remain constant in its centrality to the pursuit of knowledge, but as higher education finds new opportunities in educating more students, it is also facing new challenges around free speech.

Students who belong to relatively newly admitted groups—women, people of color, students who are the first in their families to attend college, poor students—arrive to campus having often faced significant hurdles. On campus they often face another hurdle: the sense that they may not be accepted as full members of the campus community, and may not be seen as contributing members to the community of learning.

The threshold for full participation for students involves the less tangible but no less real requirement of fitting in with the norms and expectations on campus and in the classrooms. Students should be made to feel that they are part of the conversation, and that their contributions are assessed on their merits rather than on their personal attribute, gender, skin color or background. If they fear humiliation, ridicule, and rejection they would effectively be barred from taking full advantage of their learning opportunities. But it is hard to fully understand the impact of limited dignitary safety—or the impact that an unsafe classroom and campus contexts would have on those who experience it as such—without recognizing that this is the last in a series of hurdles that members of some groups face on the road to the college classroom.

Deciding when, if ever, the harm done or risked is significant enough to justify putting a limitation on the free exchange of ideas can be difficult, especially when the harmed party is a young person whose identity and skills are evolving and whose well-being is entrusted to the university along with the role of expanding his mind. Again, some issues in this area are easier than others. Protecting a student’s intellectual comfort by avoiding serious challenges to her views may create a sense of well-being and safety, but the price paid in development and in the opportunity to participate in the university’s mission would be too high to pay. On the other hand, when the challenges presented to a student are based not on shaking her beliefs or views but rather on undermining her dignity and questioning whether she belongs in the institution altogether—especially as a member of an identity group—this can damage not only her sense of well-being but also the ability of others to hear her and evaluate her views.

To create a campus community that preserves free speech while encouraging all to participate in the conversations on campus—academic, social, civic, and other—as full members, campuses would do best to abandon the misguided notion that you can either defend free speech or protect students from harm. The two are in fact mutually beneficial within a framework that I call inclusive freedom.

Inclusive freedom calls on campus communities to agree on two key principles that underlie the main mission of colleges and universities today. First, a commitment to teaching and research can only be fulfilled in the context of an open-minded and intellectually honest environment. If truth and knowledge are to be pursued, speech and other modes of expression must be protected to the broadest extent possible. Second, all members of the campus community must know that they are invited to participate in this pursuit. Ensuring that all can develop and express their views in an open atmosphere requires adhering to key democratic principles, nondiscrimination being the main one among them. Therefore, a campus committed to democracy in all its mess and glory—a commitment to democracy that encompasses individual rights and collective identities, that recognizes and grapples with power differentials and the need for equity—must be aware of the importance of free speech, not in a neutral way but with attention to the context and effect of words.

Protecting expression is a means of protecting ideas; the protection of ideas, in turn, demands that we understand the social, historical, and political contexts in which they are uttered. It calls on all members, especially those with greater power (e.g., campus administrators, faculty, larger student groups) to preserve the equality of all members of the campus community as they develop and express their views and as they clash with opposing views. Recognition of the equal membership of all participants in the campus community requires an open and inclusive debate about matters that different constituents on campus may want to raise and discuss.

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