Why Diversity Doesn’t Trump Speech on Campus

By Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director, PEN America

At a rally in Ohio last Thursday, Donald Trump drew cheers from a crowd of young people when he vowed to defend free speech on campus. While he didn’t say so, he is likely well aware that his statements about women, immigrants and Muslims have caused students on one campus to say that seeing his name chalked on a campus sidewalk makes them feel unsafe.

Trump’s comments illustrate how the current tensions surrounding intellectual freedom on campus are enmeshed in a larger debate in the U.S. about diversity, inclusivity, inequality and language. As the United States becomes increasingly diverse, with racial minority groups to account for a majority of the U.S. population in the coming decades, a series of pressing debates have opened about how to guarantee the rights, and enable the participation in society, of all regardless of race, religion, gender, LGBT identities and myriad other personal attributes, while at the same time holding steadfast to the principles of free speech, freedom of assembly and academic freedom.

Most worryingly, recent campus controversies have led some students to openly question the value of free speech itself. Students have asked whether the protection of free speech rights is being wielded as a political weapon to ward off efforts to make the campus more respectful of the rights and perspectives of minorities. Some see free speech drawn as a shield to legitimize speech that is discriminatory and offensive. Students have argued that free speech is a prerequisite of the privileged and used to buttress existing hierarchies of wealth and power. Some have gone so far as to justify censorship as the best solution to protect the vulnerable on campus. University of Missouri activist Storm Ervin told the New York Times that “the campus is not a psychologically safe space for all, and part of the reason is that of free speech.”

These attitudes pose a risk that among student bodies of private and public universities, free speech rights may get a bad name. The danger is hardly just that free speech is not considered a cool slogan or cause on campus. If free speech protections come to be seen as ossified and irrelevant—or even inimical—to the concerns of a rising generation, core freedoms that have been vigilantly guarded throughout American history could be in peril.

As an organization that reveres the principles of free expression but also has as part of its aim the fostering of dialogue across boundaries, PEN America decided to delve more deeply into the discord roiling U.S. institutions of higher learning to explore whether there is common ground that can be forged between principles seemingly in tension. From the University of Missouri professor who suggested using “some muscle” to evict a student photojournalist from a “safe space” at an outdoor protest to the Brandeis administrators who rescinded their offer of an honorary degree for an intellectual critical of Islam, each incident, in its own way, is troubling and yet also instructive. PEN set out to learn, understand and explain.

Our report, And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion and Freedom of Speech at U.S. Universities, examines in depth some of the most polarizing campus conflicts in decades with the aim of shedding light on how best to advance inclusion and equality without compromising intellectual and academic freedom.

In addition to analyzing many of these clashes and the profusion of commentary they sparked, we conducted in-depth interviews and did close studies of three high-profile cases: Yale’s disputes around race; a series of rows concerning Jews, supporters of Israel, and Palestinians at UCLA; and debates over efforts to combat sexual harassment at Northwestern. We also examined the new campus lexicon—terms that in the past few years have become flashpoints in many of these fights such as trigger warnings, microaggressions and so-called “safe spaces.”

We concluded that while these controversies merit attention and there have been some troubling instances of speech curtailed, these do not yet represent a pervasive “crisis” for free speech on campus as some have posited. Recent surveys show that while there are big gaps in knowledge and understanding, upwards of seventy percent of American college students rate free speech as very important to them and favor a campus environment open to all ideas, including those that are offensive. Calls for censorship or to punish speech, while deeply troubling, are not yet pervasive and have in most instances been rejected.

Though they do pose dangers, the controversies we examined have the potential to end well: to unleash and amplify new and important voices that can enrich debates on campus, expanding the range of ideas in the discourse. But the drive to make the university more open to full participation and expression by previously marginalized groups must not come at the expense of free speech protections. If it does, the marketplace of ideas that new groups of students are increasingly empowered to partake in will be stripped of some of the breadth and bounty that made them want to enter it in the first place.

Toward that end, the PEN America Principles for Campus Speech, laid out in the final section of our report, reflect a set of recommendations to help guide university students, faculty, and administrators on how to approach thorny questions including controversial campus speakers, microaggressions, trigger warnings on course syllabi, the call for “safe spaces” and the question of what level of “civility” is called for on campus.

In PEN America’s view, the drive for greater equality and inclusion on campus is to be strongly encouraged; at its best it represents a new phase of the civil rights, feminist and other valiant rights struggles ongoing for decades. Enabling new voices to be heard will help campuses better reflect American society and render them a more interesting environment for expression all.

The best way to foster a diverse university is not to curtail speech but to enable it. University administrators must resist the pressure to put themselves in the position of regulating offensive speech, short of harassment, threats and other narrowly drawn legal categories. To list out forbidden microaggressions, mandate trigger warnings, or enforce restrictions that make campuses psychologically “safe” for all students would fundamentally undermine the role of the university as a forum for the free flow of ideas and vigorous debate. The PEN report calls out efforts to police speech as posing risks to the academic freedoms enjoyed by faculty, but also to the intellectual exploration and exposure to which students are entitled.

A particularly thorny issue arises when there are demands to punish speech that is seen as offensive, including through disciplinary reprisals against faculty, administrators or students who make a remark or write something interpreted as sexist, racist or otherwise objectionable. Such calls for punishment, of course, themselves are protected forms of speech; any of us is free to suggest that someone else ought to be punished for what they’ve said. In some cases, the contested speech reflects views or attitudes that genuinely impair the speaker’s credibility in carrying out their work as a member of the university community; professors who champion racist or sexist views in the classroom no longer have a place in the academy. In other cases, though, there may have been no intent or purpose to offend, and the words used may have been taken out of context or misconstrued. Our report documents cases of faculty and administrators who have lost their jobs over a few ill-considered words uttered in the classroom or a brief clause contained in an email. Even if they go unheeded by administrators, outcries against those who voice controversial ideas, or inadvertently cross a line that causes offense, put us all on guard when we speak and write. Knowing that an errant word or phrase may go viral on the internet and could cost the speaker their job can result in constricting forms of self-censorship that risk impoverishing the discourse for all.

Ultimately, we came away from our investigation convinced that a more diverse campus can—and must—be one in which robust protections for free speech thrive. Free speech is essential to safeguard those whose ideas and values are being questioned, and equally so to protect those who are doing the questioning.