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Professional Opinion

5 ways to avoid free-speech crises on college campuses

Administrators walk a fine line when confronting the right to be heard
University Business, September 2018
Diana Pisciotta, president of the Denterlein public relations agency, has counseled college and university leaders through dozens of crisis events.
Diana Pisciotta, president of the Denterlein public relations agency, has counseled college and university leaders through dozens of crisis events.

Colleges and universities have long been the place for examining the most complicated societal issues of the day. But the ability of these institutions to play host to civil dialogue is under fire.

Free-speech rights are paramount, yet the rise of “microaggressions” or overt hate speech cannot be tolerated. As a result, administrators face a myriad of hot-button issues, each so sensitive it could launch the institution into a very unforgiving public spotlight.

Walking the tightrope of First Amendment rights and academic freedom in today’s politically charged climate results in situations that can be impossible to manage and difficult to contain. The challenge isn’t going away.

Here are five key steps you can take right now to limit the risk associated with free-speech issues:

1. Clarify the institution’s position on free expression. Connect it to your mission as a place of learning, dialogue and exploration.

Practically speaking, this means actively defining intellectual freedom and free expression; clearly articulating policies that relate to free speech; identifying and sharing campus standards for civil dialogue; and educating students on First Amendment rights.

There is no better environment than a university for helping students understand these complex issues. And clear, published positions give you a foundation to build upon if something goes wrong.

2. Proactively foster civic dialogue. Despite what social media would have us believe, free speech doesn’t have to mean aggressively shouting negative thoughts regardless of who they impact.

Creating moderated forums that proactively and constructively tackle tough issues can model good behavior in an open, honest and respectful dialogue—even when there is a difference of opinion.

3. Create guidelines for inviting campus speakers. Do this for the institution as well as for student groups. Consider how and why speakers are invited to campus, as well as how they receive awards and honorary degrees.

In the event an administration invitation or award is second-guessed, you should be in a position to connect the decision to a widely understood process for identifying speakers or award recipients.

As for student groups, policies for use of campus space for third-party speakers should be clearly stated and consistently applied. That includes a process for security in the event of highly controversial speakers.

And if you think that disinviting or prohibiting a speaker will limit controversy, the opposite is true.

Rescinded invitations often end up in the national headlines. The fallout can last for weeks, particularly when you can’t explain why a decision was made—or unmade—in the first place.

4. Plan how to respond if asked to take a stance on public controversies. Whether the issue is Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement or gun control, among dozens of other hot-button topics, students want to know where their leaders stand, particularly if the issue spills onto your campus.

The expectation for the president to comment on campus-specific issues is high, so be prepared to find thoughtful ways to engage the students and public.

5. Review the school’s related policies or procedures. How will you handle First Amendment complaints? What will you do when a student complains that another’s free speech was actually a microaggression or hate speech?

Establishing protocols for evaluating and adjudicating these issues limits the risk of compounding the situation with claims of administrative incompetence or inconsistency.

An open and respectful campus culture cannot be achieved with policies alone.

Communications and activities that educate and actively foster a respectful exchange of ideas will allow you to state confidently that you are an organization that supports both free speech and civil dialogue.


Diana Pisciotta, president of the Denterlein public relations agency, has counseled college and university leaders through dozens of crisis events. She can be reached at dpisciotta@denterlein.com.