can we rethink campus free speech debates?

The events of the past fall (2015) on many college campuses around the United States raised deep and troubling questions about democratic inclusion. Not restricted to the right, left, or center, there is no easy resolution of the tensions that were most public at places like Yale, Mizzou, Smith and others, but are present on all of our campuses over maintaining individual rights and righting collective wrongs.

Giving up on the public project of democracy by restricting free speech is not the answer – in fact, “It could never be more truly said…of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease.” It also seems that affirming the pure free speech option, with opinions raging through social media and flooding up toward decision makers, leads to choices that will please no one and perhaps undermine the institution itself. At the same time, many students do feel and are vulnerable in high stakes social situations with enormous pressures to perform (and conform). It would seem from the vitriol back and forth that we are at an impasse with no possibility for more productive dialogue.

But perhaps we can be more creative about how we structure our institutions, generating norms and venues that create and house more productive conversations. Denison University is generally no different than the rest of higher education that has struggled with diversifying the student body and faculty and grappling with the social problems that diversity often entails. In fact, of the issues that my senior seminar recently surveyed the student body about, free speech versus speech codes was the most divisive, with opinions all over the spectrum.

Rather than wait for an event to precipitate a crisis, we sought to change the way in which such issues are often dealt with. That is, we staged a deliberative forum. Rather than follow Madison’s pluralist system that simply allows interested parties to attend and present their opinion, we invited a cross-section to attend and divided them into small discussion groups of 5 that contained a representative diversity of opinion – that is, we maximized disagreement. On a busy Monday night before midterms, we assembled over 70 students that mirrored the campus at large (about 80% of those who said they would come actually came). Groups were encouraged, but not dictated, to follow a set of norms emphasizing mutual respect and turn-taking in service of a common project of policy writing.

The results were astonishingly different than the videos that blazed through Facebook and elsewhere from other campuses. They talked to one another and would have kept talking. Universally participants reported that discussions were high quality; 94 percent reported that they were “productive and useful.” Almost everyone (96%) was satisfied with the policy they wrote (4% were on the fence). All but one participant thought that “My contributions were respected by other group members.” And 96% would like to get together to talk about divisive political issues like this again if given the opportunity. It is important to note that these positive experiences were reported uniformly by men and women, racial majority and minorities, and those who went into the forum believing they were in the opinion minority on campus. That is, the forum reset the power imbalances often felt in the open public square, creating something close to what Jürgen Habermas called an “ideal speech situation.”

Perhaps more important, the opinions of participants moved. And they moved not toward the extremes, as is so common in politics today, but toward the center (see Figure 1 below). Those who were ardent free speech supporters going into the forum became somewhat more supportive of speech codes, while those on the opposite pole became more supportive of free speech. The policies they wrote by and large reinforced this conclusion, attempting to balance these competing values. For instance, one group protected classrooms and academic inquiry as pure free speech zones, while establishing greater scrutiny of student speech in social and living spaces, especially when that speech is targeted at a particular individual.


Whether or not we agree with the particular outcomes that these small groups reached, it is hard to argue with the value of finding such nuanced outcomes that result from principled, respectful discussion. It is hard to argue with a process that moves people to the center and builds bridges rather than building walls. And it is hard to argue with a process that does not sour but builds investment in continued discussion. Let’s think more creatively so that institutions are no longer understood as synonymous with offices and elites and students are engaged in consequential public work.

Paul Djupe is a local cyclist who happens to have taught political science at Denison since before the Harry Potter series. You can learn more about his work at  The Senior Seminar Participants involved in generating this experience and these data were Matthew Agvent, Steven Birch-Araya, Conner Downard, Steven Hix, Benjamin Hsiung, Serena Jones, Brandon Moccia, Duncan Moran, Nathaniel Nakon, Meghan Pearce, Lindsey Studebaker.

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