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The Great Debate: Free Speech v. Student Safety

Do college campuses have a greater responsibility to uphold freedom of speech or to protect the safety and well-being of their students?

In 2015, a California Court of Appeal ruled that public colleges and universities “have no general legal obligation” to protect students from the criminal acts of other students (Helwick). However, the average person – especially parents of said students – would likely disagree. Many Americans may feel that they are in some ways relinquishing their parental duties to the universities when their children decide to attend that college. Clearly, institutions across the country and the California Court of Appeal tend to disagree with that sentiment. When language and responsibilities relating to the concept of “free speech” are thrown into the mix, the arguments on both sides of the issue become increasingly complicated. What follows then, and has been the subject of many debates, is a dilemma at the complex intersection of freedom of religion, free speech and students’ well-being.

Although a 2018 study indicated that the majority of students have said that diversity and inclusivity are more important than free speech, students are generally sensitive about stifling freedom of speech (Choski). This is a natural sensitivity, given that college campuses have historically been breeding grounds for radical and/or progressive social movements. However, the same study indicated that positions on campus free speech are clearly divided among demographics. Those who belong to groups “historically or currently in positions of power” (white students, men or Republicans) indicated more proclivity towards free speech, while nearly two in three students who were black, women or Democrats favored inclusivity (Choski).

Public universities, by law, must consider their campuses to be public spaces and must treat entities within the public space the same as any other public area in a community (for example, a local park). As such, college students have the right to free speech and the freedom to exercise their religion on campuses. Students also have “freedom of association,” meaning that religious student-led groups have the right to gather on campus, the same as with any other non-religious student organization. Additionally, all student organizations have the right to access the resources a college has available to student organizations, such as “access to facilities and funding for student group events” (Center for Arizona Policy). As is widely known, many religions pass judgment on what is or is not ‘good’ or moral, according to their religious teachings. Within each religion of this sort, there are typically groups or individual members who attempt to enforce their beliefs and judgments onto others.

In March of 2016, Business Leaders in Christ, a Christian student organization at the University of Iowa, was approached by a gay student about becoming vice president. The group’s executive board denied him a leadership role because “his decision to seek same-sex relationships was inconsistent with [Business Leaders in Christ]’s religious beliefs,” (Whitford). Although the organization was steadfast in this decision and seemingly saw no issues with it, this rejection was in direct violation of the university’s human rights policy, which bars campus groups from discriminating based on “race, creed, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, pregnancy, disability, genetic information, status as a U.S. veteran, service in the U.S. military, sexual orientation, [or] gender identity” (Whitford).

As a result, the university moved to withdraw recognition from Business Leaders in Christ. This choice was supported by a 2010 Supreme Court decision allowing public universities to enforce anti-discrimination policies, even when religious groups claim that doing so goes against their beliefs (Helwick). The proceedings of student organizations are much easier for university leadership to control, but there are also ethical dilemmas associated with the proceedings of groups inhabiting campus spaces that are not led by students.

In addition to vocalizing their disapproval of LGBT individuals, many Christian-based organizations are against abortions and the women who choose to have them. One such pro-life group, Created Equal, is known for frequenting college campuses across the United States, including campuses in Ohio, Indiana, Missouri and Florida. Among Created Equal’s calling cards are pop-up protests with extremely graphic imagery and video footage.  After finding a public site to inhabit for the day, the group presents a video on a large TV screen showing images of aborted fetuses from the organization’s commissioned photographers (Poulin). Group members parade through the area holding signs and shouting crude chants about the sins associated with abortion and denouncing those who have abortions as murderers.

While groups with these aggressive dispositions may only represent minority of religious organizations, certain competing ethical principles are at play in both of these situations. As Judge Avern Cohn said during Doe v. University of Michigan in 1989:

“It is an unfortunate fact of our constitutional system that the ideals of freedom and equality are often in conflict. The difficult and sometimes painful task of our political and legal institutions is to mediate the appropriate balance between these two competing values.” (Hudson)

Failing to find a sense of balance within that conflict has historically put higher education institutions at odds with students, especially those belonging to minority groups. Public colleges have effectively decided it is their duty to create a space where any individual can voice their opinions, beliefs or judgments – even if it may come at the cost of the well-being for those students whose identities are being judged. This signals a sort of ‘every man for himself’ mentality among the administrators, students and campus organizations which can be detrimental to creating a safe, communal campus.

Given the size of higher education institutions and the number of people affected by the decisions that administrators make, one might assume it to be more befitting for universities to follow an approach that ensures increased safety for individuals of all beliefs and identities. However, the continued presence of radical and/or intolerant organizations in campus spaces – which can endanger students – it is clear that administrators have not come to that same conclusion.

Students at affected campuses have voiced their concerns about intensely radical groups inhabiting public spaces. Kyla Ahlfeld, a sophomore at Bowling Green State University, was among those at a counter-protest of Created Equal at Bowling Green last fall. “Somebody could have a panic attack, somebody could self-harm, somebody could have thoughts of suicide,” said Ahlfeld, concerned about the graphic images and aggressive way in which Created Equal operates. In response to the protests, her school released a statement:

“Bowling Green State University is committed to protecting the open exchange and debate of ideas and opinions – a bedrock principle of both public higher education and the U.S. Constitution. This includes the right to assemble and freedom of speech as defined by the First Amendment.”

Other universities in similar situations, whether it be a visit from a pro-life group or from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, have also cited the First Amendment as a reason for a lack of response – or warning. Essentially, the common stance from higher education institutions is, “Our hands are tied, there’s nothing we can do.” While legally this may be the case, the citation of the First Amendment is dismissive of the potential impact these groups could have on the safety and well-being of students across the country.

Lack of action from academic institutions allows room for tensions to heighten and for radical groups to become increasingly aggressive. While universities continue to hide behind the First Amendment, the deadly concoction that is America’s political and social climate as a whole is spilling over onto college campuses. As a result, hates crimes on campuses have been steadily increasing. As it was reported by the Chronicle for Higher Education, approximately 280 hate crimes were reported in 2017 to the FBI by campus police departments, increased from 257 in 2016. When comparing reports of hate crimes in 2017 to 2015, incident reports had increased by 44 percent (Bauman). The state of politics in the United States has done nothing to decrease these startling statistics. In fact, 330 hate or bias-motivated incidents were reported on college campuses in the ten days after the 2016 Presidential Election (Campus Response to Hate).

Many instances like these have been reported by media outlets across the nation. One example was reported by The Daily Hampshire Gazette, which noted that several students of the University of Massachusetts Amherst have been victimized by hate crimes and rhetoric. In November 2018, someone “wrote homophobic and transphobic slurs, and drew a swastika” on a student’s dorm room door (Christensen). Prior to that incident, someone had written the N-word on an anti-racism poster on campus, and “stickers and and flyers for a white nationalist group” were posted across the campus. In response to the incidents, the university released a series of statements condemning the actions of the groups:

“Too often this semester, I have shared with you a message like this, condemning acts of hate,”  Chancellor Subbaswamy wrote, “I do so because it is important that those individuals who are the objects of such bigotry know that they are not alone – that every one of us who cherishes the rich diversity of our community stands with them and rejects the hatred spewed by a handful of anonymous cowards.” (Christensen)

Additionally, residents of the dorm were asked to attend a hall meeting in response to the incident, in the hopes of connecting the affected students to campus resources.

If, in fact, universities’ proverbial hands are tied by legal obligations, what can be done to protect students from the negative impact of hateful organizations? Clearly, meager media statements expressing concern and condemnation are not enough. University officials often have a difficult time navigating media relations around these sensitive issues and instead opt for a simple statement like those above that attempts to keep the episode “quiet.” However, this tactic does not fool anyone – it is often done to prevent a tarnishing of the institution’s reputation. This course of action is seldom successful and can often make the situation worse (U.S. Department of Justice).  

In many of these instances, college administrators may believe that they are helping foster an environment where freedom of speech is encouraged. In actuality, lack of action on behalf of universities leaves room for hate crimes and bias-motivated incidents, which are “damaging to the campus environment where the free and open exchange of ideas is essential” (U.S. Department of Justice). Certainly, one chancellor at one university does not have the jurisdiction to prevent any organization from strolling along its public grounds and verbally attacking people. However, these were not isolated incidents, as the aforementioned statistics indicate.

Intolerant or bias-motivated groups have the legal right to inhabit public spaces – that much cannot be contested. However, cultural changes must be implemented if universities across the United States want to act ethically and foster safe spaces for the nation’s next generations of professionals. “When [hateful] rhetoric is allowed in our public square… it gives encouragement to impressionable young people. It is incumbent on all school leaders to call out hate whenever it arises,” stated Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, in response to these troubling increases in college hate crimes (Bauman).

As a proactive first step, universities could choose to update the student-wide notification systems they have in place to alert students of radical groups’ presence on campus. This can be a simple warning that alerts those who might be negatively affected by the group(s) rhetoric if they are not prepared for it. Using Created Equal as an example, students who find the graphic imagery to be upsetting may choose to take a different path to class or at the very least be prepared to avoid interaction with the group members.

It is also important that universities not ignore their painful campus histories. Rather, administration should provide opportunities for open discussions and encourage education around the historical context of the campus. Although it would be best for these conversations to engage the campus as a whole, a dedicated multicultural center or other safe space can also serve as a sanctuary to all students (Campus Response to Hate).

These are just a few of the suggested cultural changes that campuses can take to mitigate hate and intolerance on campus. Admittedly, none are quick fixes and this issue not black-and-white. It takes a significant amount of time, effort and resources to demonstrate a true commitment to a safe and inclusive learning environment. With nearly 70 percent of high school graduates now electing to continue their education at a higher education institution, dismissal of this issue has the possibility of negatively impacting America’s future generations of professionals, their families, and their perceptions of the collegiate system for years to come (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).