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Free Speech, University Values, and Constructive Deliberation: Recommendations from the Center for Democratic Deliberation

The Center for Democratic Deliberation, a center of excellence within the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, is a nonpartisan research center focused on rhetorical aspects of democratic deliberation. We study how people use language and communication, speaking and writing, argument and persuasion, or dialogue and debate to impact the quality of civic discourse. This document offers recommendations for effective principles of deliberation in light of current questions about free speech and institutional diversity at Penn State. 

We do not seek to make definitive claims about First Amendment law, address partisan political debates, or conduct risk assessment. We seek to recommend principles of healthy democratic deliberation—of communication, civic engagement, trust-building, and collaborative decision-making.

In a word, we offer advice on deliberative process. We do so in the spirit of open-minded dialogue. To that end, we believe that the following principles can be used to promote common argumentative ground and constructive norms of deliberation regarding potential controversies over speech on campus.

Principles and Policies 

Emphasizing the potential for agreement on principles and policies is preferable to decision-making based primarily on a clash of viewpoints. Adhering to widely endorsed principles and policies that would apply to any speaking circumstance can constructively guide decisions over protecting both free speech and commitments to diversity, inclusion, and equality on campus.

Decision-making about outside speakers or groups should be orderly and transparent, with clearly stated standards and objectives. Such decision-making should involve appropriate representatives of primary university constituencies (administrators, security personnel, legal representatives, faculty, and diverse student groups) rather than decision-making involving only a relative few offices or groups. Protocols should be transparently available and consistently employed. 

Following a standard process of this kind can turn moments of potential campus division into opportunities for community-building and affirmations of common university values. 

Community-Building and Democratic Engagement

Competition and conflict need not define such deliberations. Students, faculty, and administrators may conceive of them as a conscious exercise in collaborative democratic engagement. 

This mentality would presuppose an inside-out approach. Deliberations over potentially contentious events may be most constructive when they originate from within the university community instead of being initiated or shaped by non-university interests. This approach may better prepare faculty, students, and administrators to make decisions over free speech, educational climate, and questions of diversity as a process of building democratic community, not attempting to win a perceived competition. 

Institutional Mission and Values

The university’s stated educational mission and value system should guide deliberations over outside speakers. The mission of our public university, and the purpose of speech within, is to “educate students from around the world, and support individuals and communities through integrated programs of teaching, research, and service.”[I] It is public space—but a public space reserved for that vital purpose. The university has determined that a commitment to core values of “diversity, equity, and inclusion”[ii]is essential to pursuing its defining educational mission. 

Members of the university may not always agree on how, exactly, to secure these values. But they can be used to identify constructive common goals and grounds for good-faith cooperation nonetheless.

Codes of Conduct

University decisions over speech, academic freedom, public safety, and healthy campus climate are best made with explicit and repeated reference to published codes of conduct.[iii]These codes of conduct are established and enforced in order to advance the educational mission of the university and foster the core institutional values that support it.

Such codes are not perfect. But they can help to create a common sense of personal expectations and obligations. They provide a useful framework for ongoing dialogue. Students, faculty, and administrators are, after all, asked to comply with codes of professional, academic, and ethical conduct every day as members of the university. 

Shared Responsibility

In an institution of higher education, members of the university and outside speakers or groups alike bear responsibility for how their speech and conduct may impact the educational climate. It seems reasonable to ask that outside speakers or groups communicate even controversial views in ways intended to contribute to, rather than detract from, the educational mission of the university.

It is possible to express one’s viewpoint on campus and honor the university’s stated institutional values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is possible to express one’s viewpoint and not disrupt or subvert the normal educational activities of the university. These goals do not need to be mutually exclusive.

Requiring members of the university to adhere to standard codes of conduct at all times while waiving those codes of conduct for outside speakers or groups would be inconsistent. Asking outside speakers or groups to follow the same norms of professional, academic, or ethical conduct that govern the daily interactions of university faculty, students, and staff is eminently reasonable.

Conflict Avoidance and Conflict Resolution

Practicing principles of conflict avoidance and conflict resolution can provide an optimal framework for decisions over potentially divisive questions of protected speech and institutional diversity. Such principles imply a shared understanding of responsibility, a commitment to open dialogue, and agreements to techniques of de-escalation.

Outside speakers and members of the university are necessarily engaged in a democratic experiment. The essence of that experiment is to ensure that First Amendment rights, educational priorities, and stated institutional commitments to diversity can all be protected simultaneously. Soliciting widespread agreement to clear expectations for conduct well in advance of speaking situations can promote outcomes that affirm First Amendment rights, educational priorities, and university values alike. 

The presumption of mutual responsibility for both process and outcomes sets an appropriate standard for campus deliberations over potentially controversial speech. Members of the campus community can be asked to recognize that even some nonviolent responses to speech may violate university codes of professional, academic, or ethical conduct and threaten the free expression of ideas. And visiting speakers or groups can be asked to recognize that certain forms of speech may violate university norms of conduct and threaten to disrupt an educational environment based on diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Decisions in either case can be made as a result of informed and orderly deliberations that adhere to the aforementioned common principles and procedures. The goal of doing so should not be to pick a social, political, or moral side. The goal should be to affirm that First Amendment rights on campus and values of diversity, equity, and inclusion will be protected equally and simultaneously. Attempting to harmonize zealous defenses of individual liberty with efforts to ensure collective equality is the oftentimes difficult, but necessary, work of modern democracy.

Conduct in response to on-campus speakers that may violate common professional, academic, or ethical codes of conduct should be addressed according to stated university policies. And asking outside speakers or groups to engage in good-faith dialogue about respecting the educational mission and expressed common values of the university is reasonable.

Taking collective responsibility for protecting free speech rights andinstitutional commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion can be a widely shared deliberative goal. 

Historical Patterns 

The lessons of history—in contrast to immediate controversies over individual public figures—may usefully supplement standard principles and policies in deliberations over potentially divisive speakers. History is a resource. History reveals patterns.

Modern extremist movements (whatever their ideological nature) have often targeted institutions of higher education. Because they foster evidence-based inquiry, freedom of thought and conscience, and pluralistic debate, these institutions frustrate extremist attempts to regulate conditions of truth and subvert academic freedom. 

 Authoritarian movements are currently targeting universities around the world.[iv]And hate groups, according to both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, are now flooding U.S. college campuses with dangerous propaganda at alarming levels.[v] 

Current questions about free expression, public safety, and university values have not arisen in a vacuum. Bearing the aforementioned historical patterns in mind during campus deliberations over controversial speakers and outside groups is both relevant and responsible—precisely in the name of protecting free speech, peaceful democratic decision-making, and academic freedom.