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Freedom of Speech and Civil Discourse

Woman covering her mouth to show concept of Free Speech

Freedom of speech is an ideal to which those who founded this country believed in. I recall President Barack Obama’s many talks about the “American Ideals” of freedom, justice, and liberty, which I believe, includes free speech. Inherent in President Obama’s message was the notion that these ideals were not fully realized by historically marginalized communities in the United States. The current climate of our society further challenges our ability to see “freedom of speech” as something that is unifying rather than polarizing. This has become an increasingly important topic in higher education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, continuously highlights issues regarding the intersection of free speech and civil discourse that are impacting education in unprecedented ways.

Nationally, there is a tension between the promotion of civil discourse and the protection of free speech on campuses. One of the issues I see is a tension between university administration and faculty of color who wish to express their concerns about the state of affairs within their respective institutions. Often, such actions are frowned upon by top university officials. This can sometimes result in the dismissal of some who express strong opinions about the climate at their institutions. This applies to both faculty and administrators. As a result, free speech doesn’t necessarily protect an employee who says something publicly that was not sanctioned and approved by leadership. This is a pain point. Free speech suggests that people can say what they wish freely, but it doesn’t automatically protect someone who is an employee at a particular institution.

As a person who does a lot of work around inclusion and diversity, I’ve seen serious friction arise with minority faculty who publicly articulate concerns about a college’s or university’s lack of attention to promoting students and/or faculty of color. Leadership can react strongly when faculty publicly challenge the university’s record surrounding equity, inclusivity, and diversity.

Many times, when people speak out publicly—using their right to freedom of speech—it’s because they feel they haven’t been heard and that no one is listening.

Shifting the trend

Promoting civil discourse spurs open, honest, and progressive solutions to pervasive problems. We need to have more dialogue like this. In our current climate, civility is oftentimes the missing piece in these discussions. The idea of a progressive solution is a great start, but if the outcome results in individuals who are afraid to speak up or have hurt feelings, it becomes a dictatorial, unidirectional meeting—not a dialogue.

Without a safe platform to speak, dangerous issues lie dormant until forcefully brought to the surface. Higher institutions of learning must be welcoming places that encourage freedom of speech. There are limits to this, however. Speech that incites hate, bigotry, or racist views should never be tolerated. Rather, institutions should work to prevent that kind of rhetoric from invading its campuses. Hateful views that separate, rather than unite and encourage, have no place in learning establishments. There has to be a clear, institutional line drawn between free speech and hate speech. Unfortunately, many institutions of higher learning are unclear about where that line exists. This uncertainty causes issues for those in the university community and society at large. Any form of speech that systematically attacks, debases, or belittles any community because of race, gender, sexuality, or difference that a group cannot control is hate speech not free speech. Free speech should unite and educate, not separate and dehumanize people. 

Teacher preparation and civil discourse

This topic must be introduced long before teachers enter the classroom. In fact, it starts with educating teacher candidates on their obligation to teach students about their role as members of a democracy. This means being engaged in the conversation. Voting and advocating for human rights that unify and edify bring communities together. Connecting with state, local, and federal leaders takes the fight to a bigger stage and gives voice to otherwise silent obstacles impeding equity.

Listening actively to others’ perspectives perpetuates the conversation and keeps the discussion in the spotlight to incite real change. When that occurs, the conversation turns toward preserving ethical and moral values, upholding the basics of humanity, instilling the right way to treat people, and advancing society. Teachers play an integral role in helping their students understand and grasp this concept. As educators, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to drive the conversation regarding free speech, equity, diversity, and inclusion at every level.

Active listening and free speech

Simply put, equity and inclusion are principals that govern free speech and to what extent it’s protected. If free speech truly advances those tenets, then it should be protected. If free speech does not advance equity and inclusion, then herein lies the challenge. And that challenge requires significant dialogue before real change can be seen.

Fundamentally, educators must possess the skills, ability, and interest to promote and advance civil discourse with those that are part of their professional and local communities. We must be champions for civil discourse, which is centered around engaging in healthy, productive, and progressive discussion with others—particularly those different from us.

Unfortunately, oftentimes active listening is missing in the higher education ecosystem. As an educator, I can say it’s sometimes difficult to model active listening for students, and can also be a difficult subject to broach with faculty, staff, and school leaders. Irrespective of that, civil discourse must be discussed early and often. What does it mean? What does it look like? How does it create a welcoming environment for everyone? One thing I have done is ask various communities within the higher education ecosystem to come up with “community norms.” Those norms are a set of established guidelines around communication and active listening. As a result, faculty and administrators openly share what they believe to be the most effective and productive forms of communication to advance their work. As leaders, we often solve problems based upon prior interpretations of the same issue, without viewing the matter through an objective lens. Using active listening allows us to understand the contextual factors that have shaped and influenced the issue, and to have a greater sense of understanding before acting.

The bottom line

Free speech and civil discourse are more than just saying what you want. It includes taking time to understand another person’s perspectives, with empathetic regard, as related to their lived experiences. It incorporates a real sense of what an individual brings to the table, without piling on layers of our own interpretations. When performed with this in mind, active listening and free speech could help to unify the teaching profession.   

Marvin Lynn serves as dean at Portland State University.


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