A few weeks ago, large student protests at the University of California, Davis, prevented a scheduled speech by the incendiary Breibart writer Milo Yiannopoulos, who, among other things, has been banned from Twitter for inciting race-based attacks on “Ghostbusters” actress Leslie Jones.
A week later, a demonstration at the University of Washington over the presence of Mr. Yiannopoulos, currently on a tour of West Coast schools, became violent, and a person outside the event was shot.
More recently, in the wake of the assault of the white nationalist leader Richard Spencer during a televised interview, people all over the country have been debating if and when it is “O.K. to punch a Nazi.”
Faced with events like these, as well as the installation of a president who has no qualms with publicly denouncing specific people, colleges and universities around the country find themselves struggling to discern how best to negotiate free speech on their campuses.
“The answer to controversy is more speech, not less,” says Dr. Robbin Crabtree, dean of the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts at Loyola Marymount University. Students come to college “informed and uninformed, engaged and unengaged, on a spectrum of both received and or chosen ideologies that have been interrogated and not interrogated,” she explains.
A university’s job is to help them to see and evaluate the “scripts” they are performing, the beliefs they are expressing. That work, she says, happens not through silencing voices but through “the proliferation of speech and encounters.”
Richard Rocheleau, associate vice president of student life at Loyola and the chair of the university’s task force on freedom of expression, agrees. “The more I’ve delved into freedom of expression as we’ve revised our policy and retrained our staff, the more I’ve found the way to combat speech that you do not like or that you find offensive is more speech.”
Mr. Rocheleau looks to examples like Martin Luther King Jr. or the recent gains of the L.G.B.T. community, which demonstrated that persistent engagement has led eventually to greater justice. “Engaging with communities that oppose you in a civil and respectful way is how the truth, what is right, becomes revealed and becomes the law,” he argues. “God’s will shows its way when you’re engaging with the other.”
But “shouting isn’t productive. You learn nothing like that, except hopefully not to shout.”
One of the challenges for higher education in balancing free speech and campus safety is some of its own language. Terms like “hate speech” and “safe spaces” originally developed out of a growing awareness of the struggles and needs of marginalized groups. Today these ideas can cause problems. What constitutes “hate speech,” for example?
The term “is very subjective,” Mr. Rocheleau says. It also has no legal standing. “The Supreme Court considers hate speech to be protected,” says the Santa Clara University constitutional scholar Margaret Russell. “Speech that is emotionally upsetting or insulting is still protected because the theory is that the listener can turn away.”
“Safe spaces” has likewise been used by some to suggest that points of view that some may find personally hurtful or inconsistent with the mission of a college or university have no place being expressed there.
“It’s a delicate balance,” Mr. Rocheleau acknowledges. “I would agree that student safety is one of our highest priorities, giving students support and reassurance that this is a place where they can learn and develop and be successful. But protecting students from feeling offended or from hearing something that they disagree with is not, I think, our job.”
Indeed, what kind of education is even possible without challenge and vulnerability? “I don’t think the Constitution protects us from being uncomfortable,” Mr. Rocheleau says.
School administrators around the country have begun wondering whether instead of asserting “safe spaces,” colleges could be promoting “brave spaces” where people respectfully take the risk of being open to challenge. Ms. Russell argues that notion is completely consistent with the original intent behind safe spaces. “A safe space is not about ‘you’re not allowed to say something that upsets me in the classroom.’” Rather, the whole idea of a safe space is predicated on “people having mutual respect and being able to communicate with each other in a civil way.”
That civility now appears to be one of our most difficult social challenges. Writing in The New York Times, Georgetown University professor Karen Stohr bemoans how contempt and the identification of someone “as unworthy of engagement and thus not a full member of the human community” has become a central form of national discourse.
“Whatever veneer of unseemliness we associated with contemptuous public speech,” Ms. Stohr writes, “has been stripped away. We are left with everyone’s raw feelings, on all sides of the political spectrum, exposed and expressed in contexts ranging from social media and public protests to confrontational signage and clothing.”
“I think we’ve had a degradation in civil discourse,” Mr. Rocheleau agrees. “Where we used to have more people able to have a conversation, folks now have retreated to extreme sides and we’re shouting and not really conversing.”
Of course, in some cases that division is exactly what speakers are hoping for, Ms. Crabtree points out. “Let’s not assume the work [of polarizing figures] is actually on a topic. Their work may be polarization itself.”
In such situations, she argues, real engagement and conversation becomes all the more essential. That could prevent the reinforcement of some noxious ideas—from the perspective of the right that “the left is not actually interested in dialogue” and from the suspicion of the left that “the right are interested in white supremacism and the dehumanization and taking of opportunities and rights from other people.”
“Right now everyone is saying to each other, ‘You’re bad; You’re wrong; You don’t get it.’”
And to an extent, Ms. Crabtree agrees. “They’re right; we don’t get it.”
“I saw Maya Angelou speak very soon before she died. She said, ‘It’s very hard to hate somebody whose story you know.’ To be creating those encounters where people listen to each other’s stories and where it really is to seek some understanding and empathy and compassion, that’s the goal.”