University presidents and free speech on campus

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According to two new surveys dealing with free speech on college campuses, “free speech is a balancing act.” Presidents and students “overwhelmingly agree that inclusion and free speech are important to a democracy.”

This noble-sounding headline seems to bury the lede in both surveys.

More alarming than the agreement on inclusion and free speech is that 15 percent of college presidents in an American Council on Education survey thinks it is sometimes appropriate for students to use the Heckler’s Veto or to “shout down” a speaker. That even one college president would think it appropriate for someone else to forcibly silence another person for their opinion sets a frightening example for everyone in a campus community.

Among students, a Gallup/Knight Foundation/Newseum survey released in March finds that 10 percent of respondents feel it is appropriate to use violence to prevent speakers from speaking. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said “shouting down speakers is sometimes acceptable.”

The surveys also indicate that both presidents and students “have a strong preference for allowing students to be exposed to all types of speech even if they may find it offensive or biased.” Yet this report is difficult to square with the idea that some respondents feel it is appropriate for students to shout down a speaker.

Perhaps this philosophical inconsistency has not gone unnoticed in tandem with the rash of shout downs and other violent events on campuses around the U.S.: The percent of students who feel that free speech is safe in the U.S. decreased from 73 percent to 64 percent of respondents between 2016 and 2017.

These inconsistencies between how college presidents and students consider free speech and what they think is appropriate behavior should motivate state lawmakers to make sure there are layers of transparency on the issue.

Generally, public university presidents answer to governing boards who answer to the legislature. State lawmakers should require public university systems to adopt mission statements in favor of free speech and have governing boards monitor activity regarding free speech on campus with at least an annual report.

Policymakers and the public should know if students were involved with a campus shout down and how campus leadership responded.

As reported on this blog and elsewhere, North Carolina lawmakers and the Wisconsin Board of Regents have adopted such ideas. Lawmakers around the U.S., from Georgia to California are considering similar proposals.

College presidents should be an example to the adults and students on their campuses. Using reason instead of violence to deal with controversial topics is a good place to start, and state lawmakers should design proposals that make presidents’ handling of free speech issues a transparent process.

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