The balancing act:
protecting free speech
while promoting inclusion

In the current cultural climate, the issue of protecting free speech on college campuses is hotly contested: How do public universities support the exchange of ideas, even controversial ones, while ensuring people feel included and safe on campus? Like many universities across the country, the University of Oregon has been wrestling with the legal, ethical, and moral issues related to free expression and First Amendment rights. The question so many universities are asking: Where is the line on free speech, and perhaps more importantly, should it be drawn?

As part of a presidential initiative, the University of Oregon examined these questions and many others in recent months during the Freedom of Expression event series. The series, which included lectures, panels, discussion groups, and art exhibitions, was designed to promote constructive conversations about the value of free expression, the importance of the First Amendment, and the effect of speech on community.

“At the core of any great educational institution is freedom of speech and its corollary—academic freedom,” President Michael Schill said. “Teaching students to be critical thinkers requires a free flow of ideas that challenge conventional wisdom and move us out of our comfort zones. However, we do have a responsibility to think about the effect of our speech on others. Just because we have a right to do something, doesn’t mean that we should do it.”

Discussion in the Jaqua building

"At the core of any great educational institution is freedom of speech"

—President Michael H. Schill

As a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), the UO is working to define those boundaries and help prepare “students, faculty and staff members to engage in thoughtful, nondisruptive debate,” according to an AAU release endorsed by President Schill.

The goal of the series was to explore the content, scope, and limits of the First Amendment on college campuses and elsewhere, and encourage the conversations to continue.

During the past winter and spring terms, each event of the initiative was hosted by a different department, school, or college on campus and tailored to discuss freedom of expression from the lens of their areas of expertise. About 500 students and members of the faculty, staff and community attended the events to discuss the struggle of defining freedom of expression and the importance of open conversations.

“Is there appropriate restriction on speech, ever?” asked Peter Laufer, James N. Wallace Chair of Journalism: News-Editorial at the School of Journalism and Communication, during a panel focused on the rural and urban divide.

Students also addressed the responsibility of the university in times like these.

“We are failing to help students process these complex moments,” Rachel Alm, a UO student, said. “Ideally, we want a world where we can have difficult conversations and be okay with that.”

At an interactive event with high school and college students from around Oregon, Charles Martinez, Philip H. Knight Professor with the College of Education, addressed the very idea of freedom. “For students to feel welcome with their opinions, they have to have the freedom to express themselves,” he said.

Students near the Pioneer Father statue
Landscape architecture students produced two art pieces displayed around campus that discussed the history of oppression in Oregon as part of the Freedom of Expression series.

 

Two students with freedom of expression signs
Two students share what freedom of expression means to them at the School of Journalism and Communication student roundtable.
Peter Laufer
Peter Laufer, James Wallace Chair Professor in Journalism at the School of Journalism and Communication, moderates the discussion about freedom of speech on campus and off.

Gabriela Martínez, associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, spoke of the changes in freedom of expression on campus during another event about the global perspectives of free speech.

“I think it is sad that freedom of expression is shifting, where people do not actually feel free to have a communal dialogue,” she said. “It has become so difficult to have open conversations without fear.”

The Freedom of Expression series revealed that students want to talk about these difficult topics, as a student named Maria Rodriguez noted. “If you suppress free speech, it can become more harmful because of the resentment that builds from that suppression,” she said.  

The most common messages and concerns from students during the Freedom of Expression initiative was that students want to feel empowered to speak their minds, to feel that their opinions are being heard, and what is most important, that listening is key to freedom of expression.

Co-Chairs for the UO Freedom of Expression series

Marcilynn Burke

Marcilynn Burke

Dean of the School of Law

“Free speech is a fundamental human right. At the same time, colleges must try to ensure that vigorous and open dialogue is not used as a means to engender violence, oppression, exclusion or acrimony.”

Juan-Carlos Molleda

Juan-Carlos Molleda

Dean of the School of Journalism and Communication

“This series was an opportunity to celebrate and debate the right of every American to freedom of expression while nurturing inclusive campus conversations with broad and diverse perspectives.”