Brown (Quinnipiac) on Free Speech on Campus

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.

2 thoughts on “Brown (Quinnipiac) on Free Speech on Campus”

  1. Thanks, Jen.

    President Trump has his own version of free speech, as reflected in this article, “Trump promises executive order that could strip colleges of funding if they don’t ‘support free speech.’” Despite wrapping himself around the flag and professing support for the Constitution, I’m not sure that he quite gets the concept of the First Amendment.

    I wrote a post about the symposium, which includes a links to all the articles published in that symposium issue.

  2. The American Association of University Professors has a petition protesting President Trump’s position. It reads:

    “Dear President Trump:

    “Given the important role of colleges and universities in debate, dissent, and the free exchange of ideas, the AAUP strongly supports freedom of expression on campus and the rights of faculty and students to invite speakers of their choosing. We oppose, however, any executive action that interferes with the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities by undermining the role of faculty, administration, and governing board in institutional decision-making and the role of students in the formulation and application of institutional policies affecting student affairs.”

    Click here if you want to sign this petition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.