The First Amendment and the Inclusive Campus

Managing controversial and incendiary speech, expression, and assembly is an exercise in upholding the integrity of the core mission and values of higher education. But our work as student affairs educators occurs against a backdrop of constitutional principles and a litany of case law, which add necessary contours to the policies and practices we can employ to lawfully and effectively manage speakers and organizers. NASPA Policy and Practice Series,"The First Amendment and the Inclusive Campus: Effective Strategies for Leaders in Student Affairs" editor, Andrew Morse discusses his perspective on free speech in higher education.

In the latest issue of the NASPA Policy and Practice Series, I outline effective practices for managing controversial speakers and demonstrations while promoting inclusive campus environments. I offer ideas and examples for challenging divisive speech when appropriate; that is, engaging such speech as an opportunity for reflection and action in order to uphold the values and promote the intellectual vitality of our campus communities. 

Higher education challenges the status quo and promotes social good. As professionals serving this field, we value the diversity that strengthens both our campuses and the world around us. We challenge cultures of intolerance and strive unwaveringly toward broad inclusion. Our students experience higher education’s transformative purpose. Students are prepared for a lifetime of intellectual curiosity, principled and empathic leadership and public service, the capacity to deeply respect and care for others, and many other such attributes that enable individuals to be good and effective stewards of our world.

I suspect that higher education’s profound contributions toward a more vibrant, just, and humanitarian world serve as the very reason that the scourge of hateful speech, expression, and assembly seeking to undermine this critical work persists on our college and university campuses. Higher education has been targeted by repulsive and incendiary speakers and organizations whose views and goals contrast starkly from the mission and values we as higher education professionals hold in trust. But higher education’s mission and values are too deeply embedded into society’s cultural, intellectual, and economic institutions to be disrupted in any fundamental way by a few. Still, we owe a duty of care to the members of our community who are targeted by those with vile and inflammatory views or goals.

How we manage controversial and incendiary speech, expression, and assembly is, of course, an exercise in upholding the integrity of our core mission and values as educational institutions dedicated to creating opportunity for all. But our work occurs against a backdrop of constitutional principles, and a litany of case law, that add necessary contours to the policies and practices we can employ to lawfully and effectively manage speakers and organizers—even if they are tied to causes that seek to undermine the very commitments for which we stand. In some cases, particularly those that involve hateful speech that is protected by the First Amendment, some readers may observe that what is right and what is lawful can be at odds.

Particularly at public colleges and universities, the responsibility to uphold the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is met with clearly defined constraints on the steps that higher education leaders can take to deny or significantly restrict the campus presence of speakers, protests, or other events—including those by incendiary speakers and organizations. I discuss these legal principles and responsibilities throughout the brief. 

But our consideration of the strategies and practices we can employ are not confined just to denying or restricting speech. In the brief, I also embrace the transformative purposes of higher education as a powerful and compelling foundation for limiting the influence of hateful speakers and causes that make their way to our campuses.

Higher learning is our strength—let’s employ it.


The First Amendment and the Inclusive Campus: Effective Strategies for Leaders in Student Affairs

Following numerous high-profile incidents involving provocative speakers and organizations on college and university campuses, student affairs leaders are revisiting free speech policies and practices to ensure alignment with the First Amendment. Student affairs educators are also exercising care and precaution to maintain the integrity of their institutional commitments to diversity and inclusion. This issue of Policy and Practice describes First Amendment principles, provides pertinent case studies, and summarizes effective practices to help leaders manage controversial speakers and demonstrators while promoting inclusive campus environments.

Read the full report.