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 hateful incidents on campus.
Realizing the two ideals of inclusion and expression in mutual harmony is challenging, especially in today’s social and political climate—an environment that has yielded an upsurge in hate crimes, violent or hateful acts, and hateful rhetoric, including by those who enter campus communities either in full view or under the protection of anonymity. As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, hate crimes on college campuses have increased 25 percent from 2015 to 2016. In response, presidents are rightly concerned about their students’ physical safety. Even when physical danger is not immediately present, hateful incidents on campus trigger fears that violence may come next. Moreover, certain symbols project violence—such as a noose hanging from a tree, a racial incident that has occurred on numerous campuses over the past year. Institutions around the country, including American University as highlighted in this brief, are wrestling with how to understand and minimize the community-wide impact of such hateful acts on campus.