Recent events on college campuses—and in greater civil society—have too often juxtaposed the values of diversity and inclusion against those of freedom of expression, when these values can and should be mutually reinforcing. While college students believe in the First Amendment, many are willing to entertain restrictions, such as policies that restrict language and behavior that are intentionally offensive to certain groups, when they perceive a conflict with other values and beliefs. Caught in the crosshairs are college and university leaders, who want to promote robust discourse in their communities, but do not want to negatively affect the student experience or compromise the learning environment. This To the Point brief provides college leaders with insights and considerations regarding the tension between campus inclusion and freedom of expression, here focused on the institutional reaction to a controversial speaker on campus.
The balance between the preservation of a respectful learning environment and the academic values of free inquiry and freedom of expression can be especially challenging when the speech at the center of a controversy is perceived as offensive or bigoted. Given the rich diversity of institutional types and missions—and the distinct legal obligation of public institutions to uphold the First Amendment—different campuses will have different interpretations of how to encourage and preserve the balance between inclusion and open discourse. Included in this brief is an exploration of common assumptions about an institution’s rights when a controversial speaker comes to campus, as well as a case study of the University of Florida’s response to a white nationalist’s demand to speak publicly about his divisive and unabashedly bigoted philosophy.