Free speech

Sam Zell's talk at UCLA called off due to "unforeseen circumstances"

Amid criticism of invitation to Sam Zell, widely criticized for his leadership in publishing and his sexist statements about women, UCLA calls off his appearance.

Conservative group cancels tickets for students from some campus groups

Young Americans for Freedom at University of Southern California canceled tickets to an event, fearful that students who disagreed with the speaker's views would disrupt him.

Jordan Peterson dishes out what he sees as harsh truths, but can he take them in return?

Jordan Peterson dishes out what he sees as harsh truths, but can he take them in return? Critics see hypocrisy and even misogyny in his threats to sue them for defamation.

Students today need colleges to value emotions as well as the intellect (opinion)

On college campuses across America, students are voicing serious concerns about sexual assault, racial bias and mental health. Those concerns often surface -- with great emotion -- as part of classroom discussions. And when students feel that faculty members, staff members or administrators lack compassion in their response, outrage or protest might follow. As we have seen, this form of student reaction often makes headlines.

I have heard many attribute such protests to the combativeness of our nation’s politics, to the belligerence of an earlier generation’s culture wars or to the extreme sensitivity of a generation of so-called snowflakes. But that doesn’t ring true for those of us who live or work in academe. We know from our years of experience -- and recent research supports this -- that the undergraduate years are a time when most college students come to appreciate the views of those on the other side of the political spectrum.

There is a simpler explanation for their behavior: they’re human. And humans are complex beings endowed with both emotion and intellect.

Those elements of humanity interact and coexist everywhere in life, including in the classroom. The best college teaching has always included both rational argument and emotional insight. That combination -- especially the emphasis on the emotional insight -- is more crucial than ever in college classrooms today.

The Irrationality of the Rational Alone

Early in my college career, I enrolled in a beginning drawing course. I was instructed to draw a live model, and I found myself stuck drawing and redrawing the model’s curly hair, unable to progress further. My professor looked at me and, instead of commenting on the quality of my art, simply asked, “Are you scared?” Which, of course, I was. His acknowledgment of my fear -- of my feelings -- cleared the path for learning. I never developed great skill in figure drawing, but I learned the techniques and concepts, all of which were beyond reach when I was blocked by fear.

Over the course of the semester, I observed how this professor used emotional insight to help students learn and progress. I never forgot that lesson, and I have tried in my own teaching and now as a college president to do the same.

Our culture is much more open than it was when I was an undergraduate student. Today’s students are much more likely to offer up their emotions. They publicly fret over finances and tribulations with friends. They talk openly about suicide and depression. And with emoji across an abundance of social media platforms, they share just about every feeling they have with audiences in ways I couldn’t have imagined at their age.

It can be challenging for faculty, staff and administrators to respond -- and to respond well -- to their expressions of emotion. Some of us are reluctant to engage, bewildered by this generation’s extreme openness and concerned about saying the wrong thing. Or we fall back on intellectual debate, treating an emotional claim as a reasoned position.

Consider the conversation around trigger warnings. A student discloses an intense reaction to a particular work of literature because it reminds the student of past trauma. In doing so, the student wonders whether it would have been better to know about this disturbing content ahead of time. For the faculty member or the student to treat it solely as a question of policy misses the opportunity for both of them to find common ground in trusting the intentions of another.

As the post-millennial generation begins its higher education journey, we must refine what has worked and what hasn’t worked to connect with and educate our students. Knowing that we must balance intellect and emotions gives us a starting point to reach them and meet their educational needs. Otherwise, we will face additional years of mismatched communications and expectations.

Whether as part of college teaching or part of the campus experience, we cannot avoid the emotions present in students or ourselves. Sometimes we idealize the academic environment as one where only rational thought takes place. But to expect that human interaction on deeply meaningful topics -- race, mental health, assault, or other sensitive issues -- can rely solely on rational argument is irrational.

Even when the topic is not high stakes, emotion is often in play in the classroom and on the campus. When I became a professor of mathematics at a residential college, I quickly learned that sometimes half of the work of teaching calculus to my students was reducing their anxiety. Acknowledging it, and working to increase their confidence, was relational, emotional work, distant from derivatives and integrals. It made a difference, and it was part of how my students learned to learn.

That sort of careful pedagogy, and close relationships between faculty members and students, has been the promise of the residential college. Because faculty and staff are committed to that promise, I know that we can rise to the occasion. What we need to do now is engage in the increased sharing of emotion and understand how to work with it.

Emotional intelligence is one piece of the puzzle, as are techniques for calming a combative discussion. The art of facilitating discussions, whether in class or in office hours or off campus, is something all of us can learn to do better.

I learned this when I taught a seminar-style, interdisciplinary humanities course combining history, literature, philosophy and religion. We had to build trust in the group and set guidelines for how to respond to each other, as the discussion of religious texts can easily go awry. Before reading the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament or the Quran, I encouraged members of the class to discuss their religious background and their investment in a particular faith tradition and text. We were then able to express and acknowledge emotion but respond to it respectfully and effectively -- and learn about the religious texts at the same time.

If we take the time to listen closely to what our students express and to carefully reflect the concerns they voice -- acknowledging the difficulty someone has experienced in disclosing something personal -- we are one step closer to clearing the path for them to truly understand and be able to grapple with the content.

And we may find our campuses less fractured places to boot.

John R. Swallow is president of Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis.

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At college lawyers' meeting, a reminder that free speech law is nuanced

At college lawyers' meeting, a legal expert (and former president) offers reminder that U.S. law on free speech isn't black-and-white.

A Middlebury professor surveys student attitudes about free speech (opinion)

Over the past few years, we have seen a growing concern in public discourse about free speech on college campuses in the United States. The familiar narrative labels college-aged students “snowflakes” who don’t like discomfort and therefore expect colleges to be intellectual “safe spaces” in which their ideological bubbles are left intact.

This, the story goes, is creating a crisis of free speech in American higher education. The proposed solution for that crisis, according to many critics, is to bring high-profile, controversial speakers to campuses to somehow break through the echo chambers -- an ideological “exposure therapy” of sorts.

Often missing in that narrative are the voices of students themselves. That absence became increasingly salient for me after Charles Murray’s visit to my campus last year. As I spoke with my students in the fallout from those events, I found that many of them had complex reactions that didn’t fit the simplistic “free speech vs. inclusion/diversity” dichotomy that has become dominant in such discussions.

In response, since last summer, I have been working with undergraduate researchers on a study entitled “Middlebury Students Engaging Across Difference.” We developed an online survey that was completed by 80 undergraduates, from first years through seniors. We then drew from those findings to develop a protocol for more in-depth, one-on-one interviews with 19 students.

Here’s some of what we’ve found thus far:

Students want to engage with ideological difference. As many as 89 percent of all survey participants, including 83 percent of left-leaning students (who made up 71 percent of the sample), said that it was “important” or “very important” to them to have conversations about controversial issues with people who have a viewpoint distinct from their own. A number of participants talked about the relationship between engaging across difference and their personal growth. As one explained, “It’s important to value putting in the effort to know someone whose values are different from yours. If you are stuck in a bubble, there is no room to grow as a person.” Students who were “neutral” about the importance of such conversations cited concerns about lack of purpose or productivity for the conversation rather than a disinterest in engaging other viewpoints.

Many students (58 percent) are having such conversations on at least a weekly basis. We asked those we surveyed to note all of the locations where such interactions tend to occur. They reported that they are more prevalent over a meal (78 percent) or in the residence halls (65 percent) than in classrooms (53 percent) or at public lectures (38 percent).

The majority (almost 80 percent) reported that such conversations, when they do occur, can be difficult to navigate. Many survey participants said the discussion too quickly devolves into a debate where, as one put it, “We’re talking at people instead of with them.” An interviewee said it’s easy to forget to “see the person as a person and not just a clump of ideas.” Students expressed a keen desire for interactions centered on empathy -- not just “being right.” Many said they don’t feel heard, but they also admitted that they struggle to listen fully to others as well.

One prevalent barrier to productive interaction is confusion about goals and responsibilities. Many students indicated that they have absorbed some confusing messages about speaking and silence. They have been taught that in some situations -- for instance, as a bystander to bullying -- silence equals complicity. As a result, they worry that simply listening, without offering a rebuttal, might be interpreted as tacit support for a particular viewpoint. Hence, while they may want to “just listen,” they feel tremendous pressure to “speak out.”

Some participants acknowledged that this pressure to speak hinders empathy and understanding. One admitted that at times, feeling empathy with someone who has a view that is “crazy, absurd, mean or hateful … scares me because I feel like I am agreeing with this hateful thing.” Another said, “Calling people out does need to happen, but [I’m] also realizing that that’s not the solution every time.”

A further complication is that fear of social marginalization is pervasive, particularly on a small, residential campus like ours. “The fear of ostracization is terrifying … of being the only one and a social outcast,” one interviewee explained. Some students claimed that this fear created a dynamic of “bandwagoning” in which “many people just seem to agree with one another for the sake of having the correct opinion.” One student framed the situation as “rhetorical gymnastics.”

Unsurprisingly, some students decide only to engage in these conversations with close friends, recognizing that probably limits the range of perspectives represented since “ friend groups … often have similar ideas and opinions [as] mine.” Others feel differently: “I do not want to create a conflict with friends,” one said, adding, “It is also difficult to be in a relationship with someone when you disagree on most things political.” Students in this latter group expressed a preference for conversations in a more structured environment like the classroom.

Perhaps some readers will see these findings as nothing more than a confirmation of the “snowflake” narrative. But I see much more going on: students want to engage deeply and productively with ideological difference, and many are aware of the barriers to that sort of engagement. Our first step as educators must be to acknowledge that these challenges exist and to talk about them openly with students and colleagues.

What else can be done? This research suggests that our institutional resources should be invested not just in the what of ideological difference but in the how. Perhaps some of the money and energy spent on bringing high-profile speakers to campus should be devoted to creating opportunities for more small-group dialogue about those speakers’ ideas and students’ reactions to them. We also need to see empathetic listening as skill set to be taught, not just as a disposition students are expected to develop on their own. One central component of that skill set is the capacity for self-questioning: What do I hope to gain from this conversation? What assumptions am I bringing? How can I respect the humanity of the people with whom I am in dialogue? Of course, we as educators are often lacking in this area, as can be attested by anyone who has taken part in a highly contentious faculty meeting. Faculty members need not only professional development in how to create the conditions for productive dialogue: we also need to consider how we might engage differing viewpoints more productively among ourselves.

In recent years, my institution has been piloting a number of initiatives aimed at cultivating the skills necessary for engaging across difference. All our first-year students are required to attend a daylong workshop in which they discuss “race and other difficult topics.” We have begun offering occasional meals in which students, staff and faculty engage in “deliberative dialogue.” We are also exploring ways to bring restorative practices into student life.

Those efforts have not yet been integrated systematically into the classroom, however -- nor are they prioritized (yet) in the academic curriculum. We need a comprehensive approach to creating a community of thoughtful listeners who are willing and prepared to engage productively with ideological difference. That could include courses or workshops on topics such as civil dialogue, empathetic listening and intercultural competence. Faculty members could form professional learning communities in which they share strategies and resources for engaging students in difficult conversations. The administration could request -- or even require -- that major co-curricular events (keynotes, symposia and the like) be accompanied by opportunities for small-group discussion and/or personal reflection before or after the event.

Of course, our students will also be able to tell us what they need, if given the opportunity. We must make “engaging across difference” an explicit pedagogical focus, if we wish to achieve the ideal of free speech in higher education.

Shawna Shapiro is an associate professor of writing and linguistics at Middlebury College, where she also directs the Writing & Rhetoric Program.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018
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Snowflakes and Free Speech on Campuses

The weakness of a recent report on free speech by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (opinion)

Recent controversies over free speech on America’s college and university campuses have inspired various organizations to propose policy changes for the consideration of college administrators. A report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, "Building a Culture of Free Expression on the American College Campus: Challenges and Solutions," cheapens the argument for freedom of expression by appealing to politically fueled stereotypes of faculty members and administrators. In attacking what it sees as the excess of political correctness, it defends free expression on campuses for weak reasons.

Authored by law professor Joyce Lee Malcolm of George Mason University, the report is part of ACTA’s Perspectives on Higher Education. Malcolm relies heavily on a report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, called "Spotlight on Speech Codes 2017," which claims that 423 of the country’s top 450 colleges and universities have “policies that threaten free speech on campus.” Included in FIRE’s tally are institutions that ban “verbal abuse” and those that ban “posters promoting alcohol consumption,” as those policies “could be interpreted to suppress protected speech.” Reasonable minds may question whether colleges and universities have gone too far in chilling free speech in the name of welcome and inclusion. But it is imbalanced sensationalism to lump colleges and universities that campaign against the scourge of excessive alcohol consumption with those banning speech because it’s offensive to some students.

The report goes on with the predictable criticism of campuses that create safe spaces and speech codes as antithetical to free speech. ACTA makes the perplexing argument that “these ostensibly progressive measures are, in actuality, chilling free speech and frustrating the open dialog that is essential to academic freedom on campus.” As with most criticism of safe spaces, the report fails to define the safe spaces it is concerned about. Colleges are traditionally full of safe spaces where like-minded people gather -- think faculty lounges and locker rooms as well as culture houses. Why do safe spaces only come under fire from groups like ACTA when they are spaces for people who disagree with controversial speakers or when they are spaces for underrepresented students to gather to support each other?

In fact, all safe spaces serve to advance speech by enabling those who are often disenfranchised to have a place and platform to develop their views before adding their voices to the open dialogue. A corollary to free speech is the freedom to associate. So-called safe spaces do allow like-minded individuals to associate in ways they wish. Freedom of association should not be trumped by ACTA’s distorted view of freedom of expression.

Perhaps the most perplexing part of the ACTA report is its full-throated advocacy of academic freedom and freedom of expression, while at the same time condemning professors who “use the classroom to present their personal political views.” Is ACTA, an advocate of free expression, really serious that faculty members must censor their own political beliefs when discussing matters of public policy? Does ACTA really believe that college students can’t make up their own minds when their beliefs are challenged by professors, or that college professors are not capable of working through bias when leading a class discussion that draws on political views?

Also singled out for criticism are professors whose students complain that “some course readings present only one side of a controversial issue.” Is ACTA serious in suggesting that readings that present only one side of an issue should be taken out of the classroom? Would ACTA ban the writings of the founders of our nation and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as one-sided? Surely ACTA can make a better argument for ensuring freedom of expression than this.

The issue is not whether faculty members lean right or left. The issue is whether faculty members are intolerant of their students’ beliefs.

In 1991, I conducted a study of this issue for the Section of General Practice of the American Bar Association published in the Washington University Law Quarterly. The survey found that 60 percent of the law students responding believed that some of their professors did not tolerate political beliefs that differed from their own. And worse yet, 51 percent of the law students responding did not always feel free to express their disagreement both in class and on exams and papers. The survey findings were surprising, considering that law students are often the most aggressive, self-assured students in the academy.

In my 27 years in higher education since I published that study, I have witnessed a growing understanding by professors that when they introduce their political beliefs in the classroom, they need to encourage and support those who disagree. In doing so, they model for their students civil civic discourse. But there are still outliers, and college administrations and faculty colleagues must be ever vigilant to make sure that all students, conservative and liberal, are valued and encouraged to present their opinions as welcome voices in a dialogue built and strengthened by multiple views.

ACTA continues to tread on dangerous territory by arguing that “universities at the official institutional level should remain neutral on issues of public controversy,” although it appropriately recognizes that “individuals have the complete right to articulate their views.” ACTA’s position implies that college and university presidents should not, in their capacity as presidents, speak for the institution. Yet colleges and universities have long added to the national debate by taking positions on controversial issues such as affirmative action, environmental sustainability and immigration policies, even knowing that some individuals in the college community may disagree.

The Board of Trustees here at Augustana College has taken a different view. Augustana’s board, like other boards, does not so much view presidents and college leaders as speaking for the institution as it sees them as leaders chosen to represent the college and as people whose values are, in part, the reason why they have been selected for those positions. Our board has adopted a policy that states that the college, through its president, should maintain high visibility and high public leadership. When issues are closely connected to our mission or to the values in our strategic plan, I, in my capacity as president, speak out. Those issues include government policies on education, support for diversity and inclusion in higher education (including support of DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program), access to and readiness for higher education, and safety or welfare issues impacting our students (including strong support of Title IX). Likewise, we often speak out, and often with partners, on other important issues where our community might benefit from our leadership -- including issues of interfaith understanding, integrity of college athletics, and local community development. Each of these has a close nexus to our mission.

We do not engage in the self-censorship that ACTA would encourage, as we view ourselves as having an affirmative responsibility to improve our community and higher education through our advocacy. College leaders speaking out in a measured but courageous way is yet another way to model civil civic discourse to our students.

As do many free speech advocates, the ACTA report praises the "University of Chicago Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression." Like most lawyers, I am a strong advocate of free speech and do not disagree with the Chicago Principles. They are clear, concise and unequivocal -- and, in my view, correct. But they are not enough, and that is where ACTA’s approach is incomplete.

The Chicago Principles do not sufficiently recognize that protected speech can injure. I’ve seen how some protected speech can hurt some students. Many historically underrepresented students wonder whether they truly belong at our colleges and universities. People exercising their right to free speech can harm this sense of belonging, and we know that sense of belonging is one of the best predictors of retention and graduation. I agree with ACTA that the fact that speech offends or makes students feel unwelcome does not provide enough cause to shut it down. But, in my view, it does create an obligation for institutions to mitigate the impact on students.

Several years ago, recognizing the damage that speech can do, Augustana changed our free speech policies from the Chicago Principles to the PEN America Principles on Campus Free Speech. The PEN Principles recognize the “core value of free speech” and affirm that “college should be a place where ideas can range free, dissent is welcomed, and settled wisdom is reconsidered.” While protecting free speech, the PEN Principles appropriately challenge colleges to speak out against hateful speech. The report eschews simple solutions and contains a nuanced analysis of supporting students who have been marginalized by protected speech.

Notwithstanding my criticism of its report, ACTA has had an impact on higher education. Reports such as ACTA’s have provoked discussion and reinforced the presupposition of some with overly suspicious views of higher education. But I find that its influence is waning, as reports like this one are viewed even by most readers as being over-the-top. Even casual observers of higher education know that colleges are not full of safe spaces with “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies,” as ACTA would encourage us to believe. And many recognize the effectiveness of these reports is diminished by the worn-out and ill-considered arguments.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote in the 1919 U.S. Supreme Court Case Abrams v. United States, in what has been called the most powerful dissent in U.S. history, “The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas -- that the best test of the truth is the power of the thought to get it accepted in the competition of the market.”

ACTA serves the public debate by defending free expression. But it harms the debate by demanding that free speech take place on its terms, and that professors and senior administrators withdraw their voices from the marketplace of ideas.

Steven Bahls is the president of Augustana College in Illinois. He is a former law school dean at Capital University and former professor at the University of Montana.

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New student coalition alleges press is suppressed at Christian institutions

New student coalition is alleging religious institutions are regularly squashing student newspapers. 

At trustees' meeting, a focus on free speech

At meeting of trustees, presidents and other campus leaders discuss the continuing turmoil colleges face in mediating tension over free speech.

James Madison official tells student who alleged sexual assault that speaking to press could violate university policy

A James Madison administrator told a student that talking with reporters about her case could violate university policies, a message that has been heavily criticized among civil liberties advocates.

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