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Beyond the News

Free speech and inclusion can coexist in higher ed

Survey shows students value diversity—and the First Amendment
University Business, May 2018
DIVERSE DISPLAY—Students from the University of Missouri’s international student council celebrate International Day with a flag parade on campus.
DIVERSE DISPLAY—Students from the University of Missouri’s international student council celebrate International Day with a flag parade on campus.

Inclusion and diversity don’t have to clash with free speech on campus. Though recent surveys have suggested a growing conflict, higher ed experts and educators—including those who have been involved in some of the research—say the concepts can only thrive in unison.

“It’s very easy to put them in opposition,” says Lorelle Espinosa, assistant vice president for the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy. “The reality is that you need both of them to accomplish the aims institutions are after. You can’t have a constructive educational environment without speech and without inclusion.”

The council was among the sponsors of a Gallup-Knight Foundation campus survey that found strong support for the First Amendment. However, the students interviewed said diversity and inclusion are now even more important than free speech to a democracy, by a margin of 53 percent to 46 percent.

The number of students (70 percent) who supported a campus where all types of speech were allowed dropped 8 percent from a 2016 survey. Democrats, women and black students were less supportive than they were two years ago, the survey found.

Inclusive generation

The survey’s goal was to gauge students’ views in an era of heightened awareness of bullying and of hate speech that has spread on social media and the internet.

“Students are very attuned to inclusion in a way past generations have not been,” Espinosa says. “They also know words really matter. What they’re saying is that there are consequences to this type of speech.”

A key role of higher education is to prepare students for the differing views and life experiences they will encounter in the professional world, says Kevin G. McDonald, vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equity at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

This report should provide campus leaders in-depth perspective when engaging with students and faculty in continued discussions around diversity and free speech, and how campus activities support those ideals, he adds.

Officials can prioritize safety when speech has the potential to incite violence. “Families entrust us with their most prized possessions, their children,” he says. “We have to take that into account to the extent that the academy is supportive of critical thought and differing views.”

‘Off the island’

Some call the inclusion or free speech question a “false premise” because it paints the ideals as mutually exclusive. “It’s like asking, ‘Would you rather have a heart or lungs?’ and coming out with a press release that says people prefer lungs,” says Frank D. LoMonte, director of The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

These types of surveys devalue free speech by tending to equate it with extremism, such as neo-Nazis speakers, and “bomb-throwers” like Milo Yiannopoulos, he says. “If you set the premise that freedom of speech means people ought to go around insulting each other’s ethnicity, no one will be in favor of it.”

The better question to ask is whether students would support the government restricting the First Amendment. “I don’t think people want to see the government policing the civility of speech,” LoMonte says. “They want to see people policing their own civility.”

Colleges should ensure students know the history of free speech and its critical role in the Civil Rights and similar movements. In addition, campus leaders should continue to invite a diverse range of speakers to campus, particularly conservative speakers who are not radicals.

The tide is shifting against speakers like white nationalist Richard Spencer, who, for instance, has drawn very small crowds at recent campus appearances, LoMonte says. “The marketplace is already voting these guys off the island.”