You may have heard that President Trump said he would sign an executive order guaranteeing free speech on college campuses. With that in mind, let me recommend Jen Gerarda Brown’s wonderful essay, “Four Questions About Free Speech and Campus Conflict,” written for a symposium at Missouri last year.
Jen points out that categorizing speech-related conflicts on campus is difficult because of (among other things) the contingent nature of relationships between the various people involved. For example, students and professors interact in multidimensional contexts — academic, family, business, community, and as people with no relationship at all (strangers). Trying to assess conflicts in this kind of shifting, contingent setting can be challenging, as can figuring out what types of conflict management techniques may be appropriate.
Additionally, Jen notes that how interconnected people are in campus free-speech conflicts may range from close to attenuated, and that special attention must be paid to the burdens that “seeking common ground” may place on historically disenfranchised or oppressed people.
Along these lines, Jen recommends caution when considering whether and how to negotiate the conditions under which hateful speakers speak on campus. Seeking “common ground” between campus members and speakers who espouse hateful rhetoric (white supremacy, homophobic, anti-Semitism, and so on) can be perilous, especially when the speakers are not part of the university community and thus have no relational ties that might help moderate the exchange or provide ongoing accountability. As she puts it:
What are the shared values and alliances that would give disputants a basis for negotiating the terms of an agreement about a particular speaker’s event–both its medium and its message? The shared sense among disputants that “We’re all Americans” or “We’re all Human Beings” may not be sufficiently specific or focused to create the incentives or the opportunities for a deal. In contrast, “We all live on Frat Row” or “I will see you Monday in Chemistry class” or “No one is anonymous on a campus of 1,000 students” may be enough to remind disputants of their shared environment–an environment they all have a stake in preserving as a community for learning, respect, and growth. Not all disputants in free speech controversies will feel a stake in that community, and when they don’t, it could be a sure sign that dispute resolution techniques are doomed to failure.
At the end of Jen’s essay, she states that more thorough analysis of free speech conflicts on campus will help us know whether the “[dispute resolution] design project is worth pursuing” for a particular conflict. I think this is a really insightful way to phrase the problem, because it highlights the limits of mainstream dispute resolution approaches in these situations and invites us to think more about what our alternatives might be.