Free Speech Tensions: Responding to Bias on College and University Campuses

THE FOLLOWING BLOG POST IS AN EXCERPT FROM "FREE speech tensions: responding to Bias on college and University Campuses" ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE JOURNAL OF STUDENT AFFAIRS RESEARCH AND PRACTICE VOLUME 54.


Despite the increasing development of bias response teams on college and university campuses, little scholarship has examined these teams and, in particular, team leaders’ approaches to understanding the role of free speech in responding to bias. Through semi-structured interviews, administrators who served on bias response teams at 19 predominantly White institutions described the need to balance free speech with other interests, recognize the nuance of First Amendment protections, and respond with educational conversations.

A steady stream of racist incidents have occurred at higher education institutions throughout the United States, including racial slurs painted on campus buildings, derogatory posters in university hallways, and racist messages and videos on students’ social media accounts (The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 2016a, 2016b). In one instance at East Tennessee State University, a White man wearing a gorilla mask tried to give bananas wrapped in nooses to attendees of a Black Lives Matter rally (The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 2016b). Campuses also routinely witness bias directed against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students (Rankin, Blumenfeld, Weber, & Frazer, 2010), religious minorities (Flaherty, 2016), and students with disabilities (Gonzales, Davidoff, Nadal, & Yanos, 2015), among other groups.

In many bias incidents in higher education, the role of First Amendment protections— particularly free speech—constitutes a flashpoint of disagreement among various constituencies. While some students, faculty members, and groups external to higher education argue for absolute free speech and detest any response from college administrators, others deplore what they view as impermissible hate speech and insist that institutions respond in a visible manner. As the number of bias response teams increased across the country, their presence has been the subject of critique by some free-speech advocates who pointed to the disbanding of a bias response team at the University of Northern Colorado following concerns a faculty member’s academic freedom was compromised (Jaschik, 2016b) and the delayed implementation of a team at the University of Iowa (Jaschik, 2016a). In response, many students and student affairs administrators argued the teams serve an important role for students who may not otherwise know where to report or how to address such incidents (New, 2016). These differing perspectives necessitate consideration of the processes used by administrators who serve on bias response teams to respond to incidents that may be considered free speech. This study aims to answer the research question: How do bias response team members understand their roles concerning free speech? 

Bias and Bias Response in Higher Education

To place this study in context, this section reviews several types of bias and bias incidents in higher education, followed by a consideration of student affairs administrators’ attempts to protect free speech and promote diverse and inclusive campus environments. Lastly, the recent formation of bias response teams on campuses is reviewed. In addition to peer-reviewed sources, we also cite news articles, given the rapidly changing landscape on this topic and the lack of published scholarship examining bias response teams. 

Read the full article online.