Beyond an Uncritical Attachment to Free Speech - Higher Education
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Beyond an Uncritical Attachment to Free Speech

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by Christopher M. Tinson and Javiera Benavente


College administrators and faculty are facing a host of student demands: defend undocumented students; challenge campus racism, sexism, and misogyny; and support social movements such as Black Lives Matter. Conversation, debate, and critical engagement have become extremely difficult in the very spaces where they should be celebrated and protected. From its inception, liberal education has involved embracing difficult discussions as opportunities for learning: that is, except when promoting social justice.

Christopher Tinson

We believe campuses should strive to support the practice of what we’re calling democratic speech: conversation and discourse promoting justice. We’ve spent the past year co-chairing a task force aimed at advancing democratic speech on a diverse campus. From observing numerous campus workshops and conversations and building on practices learned throughout our careers in educational, community and organizing experiences, we believe campuses can facilitate speech that promotes social justice without infringing on basic rights to free speech or assembly.

For too long, U.S. higher education has protected a silent power dynamic based on racial, class, and gender privilege and compounded by institutional inertia. Today, more marginalized students than ever are attending college, among them students from some of the country’s and the world’s most economically depressed and racially segregated communities. When they arrive on campus, these students are not empty vessels into which we pour Foucault, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Audre Lorde. They carry with them a range of racial, class, and gender antagonisms drawn from firsthand experiences.

These students expect the campus to serve as a vital place to analyze, test, and wrestle with the history of those experiences, and, they hope, to arrive at a deeper sense of self and purpose. Most liberal arts campuses don’t offer the equitable or neutral space necessary to meet these expectations—space for students to build relationships and community, to acquire skills in communicating and learning from conflict, all with the support of an accountable, healthy, intellectually challenging academic environment.

Indeed, these factors can determine whether the college itself succeeds or fails in its mission to cultivate an informed, engaged citizenry.

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In our conception of democratic speech, a vast range of constituents can hotly discuss a range of sociopolitical concerns. But we would argue that campuses need to aspire to free speech while moving beyond an uncritical attachment to it as a salve for an assortment of difficult conversations, and to be especially critical of free-speech claims that promote speech that is willfully uninformed or intentionally harmful and hateful.

Javiera Benavente

College campuses are not immune to racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. But they are also rare sites where these issues are interrogated in classrooms. The challenge is to identify, deconstruct, and uproot these inequities and their intersections. Democratic speech is predicated on the idea that social relationships reflect power dynamics that play out in society; and on a campus shared by many, it is important not only to speak on behalf of oneself, but also to ask ourselves how we relate to and are accountable to others.

On campuses, democratic speech is not about infringing on First Amendment rights to free speech or assembly. Instead, it aims to amplify and promote those rights. Above all, it promotes the common good by ensuring equal attention to the histories, yearnings, and desires of those in historically and locally marginalized communities and sectors of college life.

Characteristics of Democratic Speech

Our approach to democratic speech is guided by several basic questions: Who gets heard and when? Who is consistently left out? How do these patterns mirror power relationships in society? Democratic speech reframes claims to free speech by focusing critical engagement on differences among individuals and within communities, enabling conversations that promote justice, healing, and solidarity throughout our campus.

Several elements that contribute to a welcoming environment for democratic speech have emerged in our work.

1. Willingness to engage. On a campus, how we talk with, listen to, and hold space for others is critical. Engagement requires deep listening and empathy and solidarity, or what we call an ethics of care (Sevenhuijsen 1998).

2. Getting and staying informed. Engaging in a difficult conversation requires being informed. Speaking about an issue requires being educated about it, and that means gaining an understanding of its histories.

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3. Commitment to a shared understanding of shared history. With the goal of achieving a shared narrative, members of a community can commit to confronting longstanding structural impediments to safety and learning – in the form of inequities and injustices – by engaging in a series of questions: “How did we get here?” for example, and “What issues need to be addressed?” “What demands have been made?” “What are structures of accountability?”

4. Commitment to “collective courage.” The community-justice scholar Jessica Nembhard (2014) coined this term; we use it here to refer to a concern for the general health and well-being of the community, requiring a willingness to challenge a status quo that promotes division and produces campus silos. Collective courage in dialogue requires that we actively speak and listen, that we be present, and that we reflect on what is shared. Without this commitment, campuses will consistently fail to achieve a sense of collective purpose and community well-being.

Democratic Work on Campus

Democratic speech can be applied across sectors of campus life.

In the classroom: At its best, the classroom is where professors and students alike ensure that marginalized voices are heard and that no single student or small group of students dominates discussion, increasing the opportunity for enhanced learning and deep engagement.

Among faculty: Free-speech claims alone will not foster a shared sense of justice. Democratic speech asks faculty to attend to the changing mechanisms by which students access information, to remain receptive to student concerns about curriculum, and to consider adapting classroom norms to student needs. It requires a commitment to instructional practice based on inclusive and collective learning, collegiality, and constant reflection and revision.

Among students: Practicing democratic speech requires students to move away from shaming and condemning others and toward patient listening and tolerance; it requires a willingness to show, teach, and model without judgment. It asks students to stay open to opportunities for growth and self-reflection, learn from challenges they encounter and their own mistakes, and deepen their commitments to community. It also requires those who are less informed on the issues at hand to commit themselves to study those issues.

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Among staff: The work of staff may be seen as separate from the academic side of the campus and they may be discouraged from participating outside of their units. This results in a compartmentalized environment, and strong efforts should be made to invite and welcome members of the staff across campus life.

Among administrators: Embracing democratic speech means taking students’ claims seriously, analyzing institutional structures in need of revision, actively soliciting the campus for insight and perspective, and acknowledging the earnestness of student requests and demands. Above all, administrators must ensure a transparent process for deliberation, evaluation, and decision making.

In essence, democratic speech is about encouraging conversation with the goal of eliminating exploitation of workers, staff, faculty, and students. We believe that embracing dialogue that promotes restoration, rejuvenation, and resilience — especially during moments of crisis — is instrumental in shaping a healthy and vital campus climate. Democratic speech can be a key component of a strategy to institute broad organizational structures that support social justice. It can hold members of the campus community accountable. This is essential work to spurring change, and a necessary practice when the authority, power, and prestige of our institutions and the integrity of our community members are challenged.

A commitment to inclusive dialogue and conversation that supports justice will determine the relevance of a 21st century liberal education, and may position our colleges and universities as the staging grounds for national discourse.

Christopher M. Tinson is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History in the School of Critical Social Inquiry at Hampshire College and Javiera Benavente is Program Director of the Ethics and the Common Good Project at Hampshire College.

A version of this article first appeared in Diversity & Democracy (Vol. 20, No. 2/3), © 2017 Association of American Colleges and Universities, and is adapted here with permission.

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