Promoting Civic Agency And Free Speech On College Campuses

A central and ongoing challenge for our students is how to protect and strengthen democratic ways of life in a society where people with differing world views must learn to live and work effectively together. For this to occur, free speech is both a foundational condition and, perhaps, one of the major barriers standing in our way.

Timothy Garton Ash makes this point in his recent book, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. In it, he explores the centrality of free speech in providing people with differing world views the ability to live and work effectively together in democratic societies.

Garton Ash writes that by voicing views and hearing others, we learn from one another, developing an appreciation for difference and allowing ideas to clash in ways that create even better concepts. He writes, “The goal of this journey is not (emphasis mine) to eliminate conflict between human aspirations, values and ideologies … for it would result in a sterile world, monotonous, uncreative and unfree.”

Garton Ash is echoing the insights of Alexis de Tocqueville, who observed more than 180 years ago in Democracy in America that what made American democracy strong was our custom of associations, defined as the way people come together in their communities and work through associations (neighborhood organizations, local nonprofits, committees, and boards of various sorts) to make decisions about how they want to live.

For this to happen, all views have to be allowed into the public square. In particular, the dissenting voices of marginalized and disempowered groups must be sought out and sometimes even elevated to be heard. Garton Ash reminds us that this cannot happen unless free speech is widely protected and its value understood. Countries that exert power and control by restricting free speech disempower and silence dissenting views.

Hence, free speech is the lifeblood of democracy. You can’t live democratically without it. And yet, Garton Ash also recognizes that free speech can be problematic, especially given current trends. He writes extensively about the potential and problematic nature of the internet, which too often is used to spread vile views. He writes, “never in human history was there such a chance for freedom of expression as this. And never have the evils of unlimited free expression ― death threats, pedophile images, sewage-tides of abuse ― flowed so easily across frontiers.”

College campuses, public work, and civic agency

Colleges play an important role in preparing students to be effective and engaged citizens who have the capacity and commitment to protect and deepen democratic ways of life. John Dewey put this well when he stated, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”

And yet, this historical moment creates multiple challenges. Students from historically disempowered groups feel that their voices have been chronically absent from our classrooms and conversations. As they have pushed for their voices to be included, they resent the implicit and explicit deterrents that they perceive as being designed to continue to silence their voices. Conservative students feel marginalized and stigmatized by what they perceive to be left-leaning faculty and administrators who welcome voices on the left but ignore the right. And many students who are in the middle, and perhaps not sure where they fall, say nothing for fear of saying something wrong.

Colleges need to lean into this space in the following ways:

Welcome a range of voices and embrace free speech: We should welcome and invite a wide range of views to be voiced on every corner of our campus ― from classrooms to guest lecturers, and in residential halls. The Denison University faculty, for example, wrote and passed a new academic freedom policy in 2016 that states clearly, “Academic freedom applies to views and ideas that most members of the University may consider mistaken, dangerous, and even despicable. The ideas of different members of the university community will often conflict, but it is not the proper role of the university to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.” Colleges are one of the few communities that truly have a thriving “public square” in quite a literal sense. We need to embrace and celebrate it.

Educate students to be autonomous thinkers: Part of a college education (even if a student is majoring in something very narrow and pre-professional) should include courses on how to formulate arguments, discern between fact and fiction, weave disparate and competing thoughts into new ideas, and listen to and hear dissenting views. These are the values of the liberal arts. William Cronon captures this well in his classic piece Only Connect. As part of this, students should be exposed to a wide range of views in classrooms, and they should be taking courses in the humanities and social sciences that can expose them to these diverse views.

A central task in this historical moment is helping students learn to how to take advantage of a world awash in information without succumbing to its worst aspects. This starts by helping students learn how to seek out information that is collected and presented in legitimate ways, based on reason, logic and rigorously collected and analyzed data. There is a difference between fact and fiction, and an education helps students learn to draw the distinction.

Another enterprise is training students to read widely and to seek out dissenting views. Our students should be reading multiple news sources daily that cut across the political spectrum. As educators, we should expect, model and teach our students to develop the habit of reading across the political and ideological spectrum.

Create campus cultures where students can learn to do public work and acquire civic agency: The essence of a democratic society is the work of the people, by the people, and for the people. The core concept is public work, which is what happens when people come together in their communities. They learn to work with people they know, people they don’t know, and people they know but who see the world differently.

Central to this work is civic agency, the capacity of people to take effective action across lines of difference. From residential halls to student organizations, college campuses should be design studios where students learn to hear different views, and work with people who see the world differently. Our college campuses are some of the few social institutions remaining where people are bumping up against a range of people and can learn to do this work effectively.

Much of this work rests on students acquiring an appreciation and capacity for empathy. Working across differences in a pluralistic society requires all of us to have the emotional intelligence to go beyond just listening and hearing to also being able to compassionately understand the experiences of others and how they shape their perspectives and needs in ways that might differ from our own. Without this, it is extremely difficult for us to harness the true power of diverse groups and for students to come to understand that the best decisions are made by groups of people with a range of views, experiences and skills.

Be the citizens we want our students to become: College presidents, administrators and faculty need to model the civic behaviors that underlie a functioning democracy. Faculty should be encouraged to use their disciplinary training to speak in public about the issues of the day. In doing so, they model how arguments are formed based on data, arising from and as part of important historical debates. They also demonstrate how we engage dissenting views, building upon them to constantly strive for deeper understanding and better ideas for moving forward. Faculty do this work well, but too often it is hidden from the public. We need to do more to encourage faculty to share the scholarship they are doing in ways that add to important public debates.

As part of this, I believe college presidents can and should speak to the issues of the day, but we need to do so with a voice that does not preempt vital debate. We need to model leadership that expresses views and explains their moral content, but also invites dissenting views and expressly welcomes debate about how to create a healthier democratic society. My own style has been to comment on public issues that pertain to protecting and deepening democratic values and ways of life, but to be more silent on issues of public policy.

Treat our campuses as places where students learn how to create a strong civil commitment to a vibrant public square: The question always arises, is there speech that should not be allowed? The simple answer is “of course,” but only under the rarest of circumstances. Like Garton Ash, I start from John Stuart Mill’s original formulation, “any form of expression that is both intended and likely to lead to physical violence should meet with the force of the law.” But this should be a high standard and one rarely invoked.

Here is the tricky part. If we want to protect free speech, we need to create environments where that speech is directed at the public good. But we also need to realize and respect the chilling impact on legitimate voices brought about by the enforcement of rules that curtail speech and, too, the impact that can have on our mission. I go back to the Denison statement, “Academic freedom is essential to the aims of higher education and to the University’s goals of fostering critical thinking, moral discernment, and active citizenship among its members.”

There is a lot of speech that does not incite violence, and so should be permitted, but also deserves to be pushed against. This is where civil society comes into play. We need to help students learn how to engage in the space outside of government, where communities stand up and state clearly that there are shared norms that bind us together despite our differences. This is particularly important in a historical moment where a few feel emboldened to state views that appear to be directed more at targeting and silencing than informing and engaging.

Most of us know when speech has crossed the line or when legitimate free speech is being silenced. And this becomes much more clear when students are educated broadly in the liberal arts. We need citizens to step into this space, publicly supporting the rights of people to voice views that have a right to be heard, even if they are unpopular, while also confronting those views. It is our job as educators to help our students learn to differentiate and do this work. And it is the job of every student to step into this space.

As part of this work, we need to help students understand that just because you were not targeted by a view that crosses the line, you still have an obligation to push back against it. I worry that, especially in social groupings, people often want to maintain the social fabric by being nice. Silence is not the answer. No public square is flat. Some of us are more vulnerable to the free speech we value. Hence, we all have an ethical obligation push back against speech that seeks to marginalize voices across the political spectrum that need to be heard. Learning to do so effectively is something colleges should teach students to do.

And people need to own their speech by attaching their names to what they write. For me, this is the biggest danger of the internet and sometimes the actions on our campuses. Voices without names are chilling and undercut every value of democratic living.

Looking Forward:

We need to educate and inspire students to be the citizens our society will need as we move into the future. This means college campuses should be places where students learn to be comfortable hearing views that challenge their own. To live democratically is to be able and willing to voice a view, hear an opposing view (even when it could have been stated better) and to work across difference to transform the power of competing views into better ideas.