Protecting Free Speech—and Your Campus

The role of advancement in preparing the institution for dialogue and debate in polarizing times

By Sandra Gurvis

Free Speech---and Your Campus

Dan Mogulof, the assistant vice chancellor for public affairs at the University of California, Berkeley, calls it "the tale of two speakers."

In February 2017, the day of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos' scheduled speech, members of an anti-fascist, anarchist group plowed into a crowd of 1,500 mostly peaceful protesters, hurling Molotov cocktails, fireworks, and rocks; pushing barricades into windows; and destroying $100,000 worth of campus and city property. UC Berkeley administrators canceled the event. "It's a miracle no one was seriously hurt," Mogulof says.

Fast-forward to September 2017. Conservative talk show host Ben Shapiro—disinvited at other institutions due to his stances on race, civil liberties, and Islam—arrived to speak at UC Berkeley. The event occurred without violence. "We were able to go forward without disruption," Mogulof says, "so those who chose to protest could do so in nonviolent ways."

How did such a change happen? UC Berkeley is among dozens of institutions to quickly adjust its handling of speakers whose rhetoric might incite violence and imperil student safety.

Such speaker-related campus disruptions "can happen anywhere," says Bill Burger, vice president of communications and the chief marketing officer at Vermont's Middlebury College, where a protest over a talk by Charles Murray, a fellow at the conservative think tank The American Enterprise Institute, in March 2017 turned violent and left one faculty member injured. "We have learned that the things we once took for granted about the ability for people to speak on campus can no longer be taken for granted," Burger says. "We have to give more thought to the time, place, and manner of some events to ensure safety and security."

Institutions that have weathered speaker-related campus disruptions offer valuable tips for being proactive: Ensure student safety at all costs, don't impede the First Amendment, and stay in constant communication with alumni, donors, and the campus community about institutional values.

Competing Priorities

Free speech controversies roil university campuses almost daily. In the U.S., the partisan divide over issues such as race and immigration has grown more pronounced, particularly during the first year of the Trump administration, according to Pew Research Center results. The self-described "alt-right" white nationalist movement is playing a prominent role in politics, giving its followers a broader platform and emboldening those who believe people of color, Jews, women, immigrants, and members of the LGBT community are inferior. Students and others who reject those views are forcefully condemning such speakers and questioning why they should be given a forum.

U.K. institutions are also grappling with this issue. More than 90 percent of U.K. universities have restrictions on free speech, and almost two-fifths of student unions have "no platform" policies that prohibit appearances by speakers with unacceptable or controversial views, according to the Free Speech University Rankings. But in October 2017, the U.K. universities minister announced that the newly created Office for Students would "fine, suspend or register universities that fail to protect freedom of speech on campuses," according to an article in The Guardian.

Getting a handle on free speech issues is of paramount concern for advancement professionals, given that the narratives surrounding controversial events—some factual, some distorted—can generate grave concern among parents, alumni, and donors and cause reputational damage that undermines fundraising.

After protests at Middlebury devolved into chaos, the college heard from alumni who felt Murray—whose study on intelligence and race in the 1994 book The Bell Curve remains controversial—had no business spouting his views as well as from alumni who were disappointed by what they felt were efforts to preclude free speech, Burger says.

"We were getting calls, emails, letters, and petitions. We heard from more than 1,500 alumni in the weeks that followed. Many were upset," says Burger, noting a dip in giving. "Some alumni were not comfortable seeing their institution under the bright lights of scrutiny. But it's important to note that our alumni were not of one mind in their views, which reflected the difficulty of the issues we were dealing with."

Students, alumni, and donors aren't the only ones keenly interested in how colleges and universities handle controversial speakers. In what some administrators call an unprecedented intrusion and potential threat to campus autonomy, the U.S. Department of Justice announced plans to intervene in free speech disputes. It has filed a brief in a lawsuit against a Georgia college accused of restricting a student's religious speech.

North Carolina is among the first states to intervene, in 2017 enacting the Restore Campus Free Speech Act. Along with requiring institutions to create sanctions for those who "substantially disrupt or interfere with the protected free expression rights of others," the law also allows students to distribute literature on campus and express opinions contrary to the institution without consequence.

During Purdue University’s annual role-playing freedom of speech presentation and panel discussion, freshmen learn about the campus’s free-speech policy, exceptions to the policy, and resources available to assist students dealing with issues related to speech on campus.

CIVILITY, IN FOUR ACTS: During Purdue University's annual role-playing freedom of speech presentation and panel discussion, freshmen learn about the campus's free-speech policy, exceptions to the policy, and resources available to assist students dealing with issues related to speech on campus.
Communicating with Stakeholders

Though some administrators think a legislative solution is unwarranted, they are taking steps to refine their policies while reiterating a commitment to free speech. After the Murray visit, Middlebury instituted its crisis communications plan and worked closely with alumni relations, fundraising, and the president's office to engage alumni, parents, staff, trustees, and media. They responded to every constituent email, letter, and phone call.

"We wanted to understand what alumni were concerned about," Burger says. "We also communicated our principles as an institution—we believe strongly in free expression."

His team also created a Charles Murray resource page on the college's newsroom website  with information about the incident and its aftermath. The page includes updates on the independent investigation the college commissioned, the outcome of judicial proceedings against students who violated college rules, and changes to speaker-booking regulations.

"We were determined to be as transparent as we could about what happened here and how we were responding," Burger says, noting the importance of institutions—even private ones like Middlebury—to "not operate with a sense of secrecy and hiding what we're doing."

The University of San Diego also addressed a free speech controversy through reasoned communication with constituents. An August 2017 Philadelphia Inquirer editorial co-written by USD law professor Larry Alexander on returning to the "bourgeois culture" of the 1950s was slammed by student and alumni groups as being racist and anti-women.

"Along with supporting Professor Alexander's right to free speech—although administrators and others might not necessarily agree with his views—we initiated conversations with students and alumni about the meaning and context of his statements," says James Harris, USD president. Working with advancement and alumni relations, Harris, who also chairs the CASE Board of Trustees, and his team communicated with alumni, faculty, students, and donors. "We gave them a clear message of what we were doing and why."

UC Berkeley instituted a town hall approach. "We are constantly communicating through open letters to students, alumni, faculty, and staff or face-to-face meetings with stakeholders," Mogulof says. "The point is to get timely and accurate information to the ‘persuadable middle,' the majority of people who see life in shades of gray, as complicated and full of nuances." 

Such efforts help institutions stave off advancement troubles. Oregon State University's November 2016 announcement that it would serve as a sanctuary university for undocumented students generated quite a bit of feedback, all of which the university acknowledged.

"People were very pleased—and sometimes surprised—when they got a personal response from someone at the university," says J. Michael Goodwin, president and CEO of the OSU Foundation. Fundraising isn't down, but Goodwin and Steve Clark, vice president of university relations and marketing at OSU, are seeing hesitancy on the part of a few major donors. "They have adopted a wait-and-see attitude," Clark says. Development leaders deal with this on a case-by-case basis through individual conversations and other targeted communication, explaining that "delaying the gift might not be beneficial to those they want to help the most—the students." 

When white nationalist Richard Spencer came to campus, University of Florida students countered his racist rhetoric by sharing their values through social media. About 2,500 people peacefully protested at the October 2017 event. When white nationalist Richard Spencer came to campus, University of Florida students countered his racist rhetoric by sharing their values through social media. About 2,500 people peacefully protested at the October 2017 event.

SPREAD THIS INSTEAD: When white nationalist Richard Spencer came to campus, University of Florida students countered his racist rhetoric by sharing their values through social media. About 2,500 people peacefully protested at the October 2017 event.
Safety First 

Beefed-up security is one obvious way to address student safety. Security for the Shapiro speech at UC Berkeley was tight and costly—an estimated $600,000—and included police presence from the other nine UC campuses as well as local and state law enforcement. Attendees were required to have tickets and pass through metal detectors, and protesters were kept behind police-guarded barricades. 

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ recently established a university commission on free speech to examine how the institution can maintain its commitment to the First Amendment and to student safety without significantly draining resources. The commission of appointed faculty, administrators, students, and alumni will evaluate broad issues affecting such commitments, including potential changes in the major events policy, student group composition requirements, and facility rental policy regarding groups unaffiliated with the institution. Working in consultation with campus constituency groups, city leaders, and civic and business organizations, the commission is expected to deliver recommendations to the chancellor in March 2018. 

When instituting security measures, even for seemingly innocuous occasions, officials at OSU consider numerous factors, Clark explains. Since its Corvallis campus was directly in the path of August 2017's rare solar eclipse, the university organized a three-day festival that drew some 5,000 to 7,000 visitors.

However, the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier that month—when a counter-protester was killed near a white nationalist rally close to the University of Virginia—figured into the planning. "We had 17 different plans and over 100 pages of documents that looked at every possible contingency, including traffic management, crowd safety, and protests," Clark says. "We were thankful that everything went well." 

To ensure the safety of Free Speech Week, a four-day event organized by the conservative campus publication The Berkeley Patriot in September 2017, UC Berkeley spent in excess of $1 million to bring in law enforcement from around the state and pay for their time, hotel rooms, and other travel costs. The student group canceled at the last minute. 

"While no one is happy to see a campus that is strapped for resources spend this kind of money on event security," Mogulof says, "most people understand that compliance with First Amendment rights and ensuring the safety and well-being of the university community are non-negotiable." 

Pascal Napoleon was among the Widener University students to lead a breakout discussion at “The First Amendment: Finding Common Ground in a Polarized World,” held at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where the U.S. Constitution was signed.

LET'S TALK ABOUT. . .:  Pascal Napoleon was among the Widener University students to lead a breakout discussion at "The First Amendment: Finding Common Ground in a Polarized World," held at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where the U.S. Constitution was signed.
A Solution-Based End Game

In addition to updating policies and communicating institutional values, colleges and universities are also doing what they do best—educating students. They're teaching students about the value of free speech, rigorous intellectual debate, and making their voices heard without violence: 

A series about speakers. In fall 2017, Middlebury created "Critical Conversations," a series designed to demonstrate the importance of engaging in difficult discussions. Sessions include "What is Hate Speech?" and a scholars-led discussion on what a robust and inclusive public sphere looks like. 

Get social. In an open letter regarding white nationalist leader Richard Spencer's October 2017 speech at the University of Florida, President Kent Fuchs explained that "we are required by law to allow Mr. Spencer to speak his racist views on our campus." He encouraged the UF community to skip the speech and use alternative methods to "speak up for your values and the values of our university." The administration also promoted a student-run digital media campaign, including a "No Nazis at UF" Facebook page, a #TogetherUF hashtag, and the "Gators Chomp Nazis" slogan. Things went relatively peacefully, with many empty seats during Spencer's talk. 

Role-playing. Purdue University in Indiana folds various controversial views and speaker scenarios into its freshman orientation program. Skits include a "sidewalk preacher" who verbally assaults students with controversial points of view and a roommate situation in which one student has a Confederate flag. Students learn appropriate ways to respond to invited campus speakers with whom they may strongly disagree. "Not only have the number of student questions and complaints dropped drastically since we started this in the fall of 2016, but other universities are contacting us in terms of instituting similar programs," says Dean of Students Katherine Sermersheim. "Our newest students are the most vulnerable, and right out of the gate, this teaches them how to handle different viewpoints." 

Point-counterpoint. Crisis communicator Davia Temin, who works with colleges and other institutions to manage critical situations, recommends an approach based on ancient Roman forums: Invite one speaker to present a side and another to offer the opposing point of view, preferably on the same day. "This allows [students] to hear both sides and use their critical thinking skills to make informed decisions," she says.

Civil discourse. In November 2017, Widener University in Pennsylvania held "The First Amendment: Finding Common Ground in a Polarized World," in conjunction with the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Student-led breakout discussions followed a panel featuring institutional leaders and legal experts. "Students and others were able to share their thoughts through a framework of civility, utilizing understanding, empathy, and advocacy," explains Greg Potter, executive director of university relations.

Many administrators agree that facing the very ideas that might initially engender fear in students will likely serve to make students stronger. Free speech can foster a dialogue between opposing views, says Harris of USD, noting that one side might come to better understand how the other side thinks.

"Free speech will remain integral to any healthy campus environment," Harris says, "so long as both sides continue to be heard, without fear of being lambasted for holding a particular stance on an issue."

About the Author

Sandra Gurvis is a freelance writer who has published two books about the student protests of the 1960s: The Pipe Dreamers (Olmstead) and Where Have All the Flower Children Gone? (University Press of Mississippi).