Are Universities No Longer “Bastions of Free Expression”?

2016 Jefferson Symposium: Free Speech on CampusCollege campuses are often the setting of our most intense debates over free speech, requiring administrators, faculty and staff to play important roles as mediators and leaders. On Oct. 14, Newseum President and CEO Jeffrey Herbst traveled to the University of Virginia to discuss these issues in a symposium about free speech on college campuses.

UVA’s president Teresa Sullivan opened the discussion by recalling two recent free speech controversies involving UVA students and faculty. She talked about the public backlash when their controversial statements and actions went unreprimanded by the university, and the difficulty of coordinating a just and fair response.

No university administrator wants to be dragged into controversy of any kind, acknowledged Herbst. But the desire to avoid trouble contributes to what he called a “censorship of silence.” “One of the biggest problems on college campuses is what’s not being said,” Herbst remarked.

Herbst talked about the results from a recent Gallup survey (sponsored by the Newseum Institute and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation) that questioned college students about their views on First Amendment rights. While the vast majority of students surveyed indicated their support for free speech, a significant minority (22 percent) said that colleges and universities should prohibit biased or offensive speech to preserve a positive learning environment, and more than half (54 percent) said the climate on campus prevents some students from saying what they believe because others may find it offensive.

Social media plays a heavy part in free expression issues on college campuses. The immediate, unfiltered nature of communication on these platforms — and the extremist viewpoints that frequently bubble to the surface — have resulted in a greater tolerance for censorship, which is reflected in the Gallup survey results. When questioned about social media, half of the students surveyed said that the conversations taking place there aren’t civil.

Their answers represent a fundamental shift in students’ perception of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. “Students who feel that they’re underrepresented or not fully empowered, such as African Americans and some women, do not believe that their First Amendment rights are an avenue to greater equality and representation,” said Herbst. “That’s a profound shift from the civil rights movement, when people utilized all five freedoms of the First Amendment to pursue their noble goals.”

To make the case that the First Amendment is still an avenue for full participation in society, Herbst said that university administrators and faculty need to “meet students where they are — and that’s on social media.” Herbst asked academic leaders to consider their schools’ social media strategies, and how they are leading conversations, in tone and substance, that will set good examples for students. He stressed the importance of educating students on how to engage in civil discussions on these platforms.

Historic data indicates an “ideological homogeneity” and a lack of political diversity on many college campuses, making it more incumbent on academic leaders to show students that it’s possible — and even desirable — to disagree with each other using respectful dialog. Taking to social media is the most effective way to do that, said Herbst.

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