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More Than Words: Universities Balance Complexities of Free Speech

Institutions must encourage healthy discourse and debate on campuses while upholding the values set by the community, a panel of university administrators discussed.

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The Bipartisan Policy Center's Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, from left, AU president Sylvia M. Burwell, and Johns Hopkins University president Ron Daniels speak about free expression in higher education.

Fostering a practice of inquiry can create an uncomfortable environment—but open and respectful disagreement is fundamental to solving society’s biggest challenges. 

Higher education institutions across the country are grappling with striking the right balance between freedom of expression, inclusion, and safety. More than 80 universities and colleges have released freedom of expression documents since 2015, according to Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Campus Free Expression Project at the DC-based Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), which draws on the best ideas from both political parties to promote health, security, and opportunity. 

Merrill moderated a discussion about balancing the complexities of free speech on Tuesday at Constitution Hall with AU president Sylvia Burwell, Johns Hopkins president Ron Daniels, and Auburn University’s vice president and associate provost for inclusion and diversity Taffye Benson Clayton, CAS/MA ’95. The event, More Than Words: Free Expression, Responsibility, and Inclusion in Higher Education, was cosponsored by BPC. 

Burwell told the audience of students, faculty, staff, and administrators that an ethos of inquiry calls for challenging conversations—but those exchanges should remain consistent with a university’s shared values. 

The majority of students agree. According to a 2020 Knight Foundation/Gallup survey, 81 percent of students widely supported all types of speech, even if they find it offensive. Nearly 7 in 10 students believe free speech rights are “extremely important to democracy” and value an inclusive society that welcomes diverse viewpoints. 

“For universities, diversity and inclusion and free expression are central to our mission [and] essential to academic environments,” said Clayton, a former resident director in Nebraska Hall. “Together they create the conditions for deeper learning, [including] the sharp, critical thinking that’s expected.” 

But the Gallup poll also revealed some erosion in the openness of debate. More than three in five students believe their campus climate dissuades open expression—an increase of 9 percent since 2016. Conservative students said they can’t freely express their views as openly as their more liberal peers, the survey found. 

University leaders can help set the tone for inclusion and a greater sense of belonging on campus by encouraging different student groups to host events with speakers who hold opposing views, Daniels said. “Many campus events include a solo speaker who typically attracts those who are in agreement with [them],” he added. 

AU has worked to foster those interactions through the Sine Institute of Policy and Politics, which hosts a bipartisan group of speakers and fellows each year. This year’s cohort, for example, includes the former Republican governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, and the former Democratic mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio.  

Daniels said universities must also work to bridge the gap in our increasingly polarized society to remain a pillar of a liberal democracy. 

“We are deeply polarized, and the magic of the university is the incredibly diverse or holistic communities that we create,” he said. “We have the opportunity to really model something that is important in showing the possibilities for our liberal democracy. We allow people to develop habits of understanding that they wouldn’t otherwise get but for this immersive experience.” 

During the event, Burwell touted AU’s new freedom of expression policy. She joked that she was writing her senior thesis on a Commodore 64 computer when the previous policy, which dealt primarily with campus protests, was drafted in 1982.  

“We did not know what the outcome would be,” Burwell said. “But we did know that we needed a change, and we needed improvements in the world that we live in today.” 

AU’s new policy was crafted by a working group of administrators, staff, and faculty who met every other week for nearly a year and led by director of cyber policy Regina Curran and SPA professor Thomas Merrill. It addresses the right to free expression in academic inquiry, the classroom, community life, dissent and campus protest, and for invited speakers and has exceptions for threatening or unlawful conduct. 

“It was very plain to university leadership that there was a lot going on in the world of expression nationally, locally, and on our campus, and we needed to sufficiently address it,” Curran said. “There was a real sense of need and urgency.”