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Policy in Practice: Proactive Steps to Foster Inclusion, Diversity, and Free Speech

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division
November 1, 2018 Teri Lyn Hinds Director of Policy Research & Advocacy

Institutions seeking ways to address the increasing divisiveness plaguing our nation’s political discourse are challenged with balancing strong respect for equity and inclusion with protecting free speech. Contrary to inclusion and diversity and freedom of expression being at odds, however, campus leaders can take proactive steps to establish both meaningful protections for those who have experienced past trauma and create spaces for open and honest discourse on fraught topics. For some institutions, re-examining institutional speech and expression policies to identify how they can be made less reliant on free speech zones while still allowing for appropriate planning for campus safety, may bring together campus leaders, students, and the community around a concrete task. Establishing a practice of deliberative dialogue across topics of passionately held different opinions allows for greater exploration and creates capacity for empathy and discussion. Providing resources for higher education professionals for use of safe spaces in pedagogically appropriate ways can help students with histories of trauma, from veterans to survivors of abuse, engage more fully with their educations. This post provides starting points and considerations for these approaches.

Current Legislative Climate and Free Speech Zones

As stated in our Position on Free Speech Legislation, NASPA believes that rather than impose external conditions and restrictions on institutions and students, our institutions of higher education should be allowed the freedom to establish guidelines and rules for deliberation appropriate for their communities within our already established free speech case law. As noted in our May 2018 blog post, Untangling the Threads: 2018 State Legislation Addressing Campus Speech Concerns, there have been several Congressional hearings on free speech, with the latest held by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in September 2018, but federal legislation on free speech appears unlikely.

The banning of free speech zones on college campuses in at least nine states[1], combined with federal court cases and interest by the Department of Justice[2], however, signal that many, if not all, campuses may soon be prohibited from the narrow application of free speech zones. Each of the three primary pieces of model state legislation[3] we have seen introduced across the states in recent years would restrict the use of free speech zones on college campuses. If the Supreme Court elects to consider the case and rule on campus free speech zones, it could alter the practice or application on campuses across the country.

Institutions in states considering legislation that would disallow use of free speech zones may wish to review their campus policies on expression. Considering whether and how existing policies regulate time, place, and manner, including whether place is narrowly restricted and/or requires advance registration for limited space, may help identify where and how policies could be adjusted if needed. Student affairs professionals can be proactive by comparing campus polices to those implemented by institutions in states (see footnote 1) that have already prohibited free speech zones. Reviewing the policies with an understanding of your own campus climate and culture will make it easier for you to suggest options for maintaining campus safety without use of free speech zones.

Addressing Polarization with Deliberative Dialogue

Campuses have long been valued in our communities for fostering curiosity and learning, creating space to engage in uncomfortable conversations or wrestle with new ideas. Indeed, it is this very trait of open access and willingness to explore across the political spectrum that has resulted in campuses today becoming the stage – as they were during the Civil Rights Era – upon which our national conversations about race, inequality, and justice play out. Research by Middlebury associate professor Shawn Shapiro reported in Inside Higher Ed, however, finds that instead of hiding from new ideas, today’s students seem to be looking for ways to engage with them directly in ways that engender respect for all participants, if not all opinions. Similarly, the resurgence of campus organizations committed to confronting political polarization, reported on this week by the Washington Post, point to more solutions than conflict. Far from squelching free speech and intellectual diversity, campuses across the country hold events on a wide variety of topics and host speakers who hold a diversity of views and opinions, challenging attendees to broaden their perspectives and engage in deliberative discourse.[4]

As our political conversations shift following the midterm elections toward the 2020 presidential elections, modeling deliberative dialogue within higher education may be a method of addressing polarization as well as an approach to increasing student civic engagement. What topics cause division on your campus? Could your campus hold an issue forum on the topic to model deliberative dialogue? Who would you want to be sure to invite? Does an issue guide on the topic already exist? If so, do the options presented seem like the right options for your campus/community?

Safe Spaces and Brave Spaces as Pedagogical Tools

The use of safe spaces have become part of the controversy, prompting accusations of coddling students or shielding them from facing opposing viewpoints. Contrary to claims by critics, however, safe spaces are pedagogical tools designed to encourage students to engage critically with potentially offensive or traumatizing content. NASPA’s Policy and Practice brief Safe Spaces and Brave Spaces: Historical Context and Recommendations for Student Affairs Professionals provides a historical perspective on the use of safe spaces and recommends more intentional use of brave spaces in classroom settings. First popularized by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens[5], a brave space is one where controversy is encouraged, but civility and personal accountability are required. The brief outlines the ways that safe spaces provide both opportunities for historically marginalized or oppressed populations space in which they can freely be themselves and how the use of brave spaces in classroom settings provides opportunities for students from different backgrounds to engage in critical conversation and discussion on topics on which they disagree.

What’s Working on Your Campus?

It is hard work to be an active participant in a community, harder still when the community is a democracy with the size and diversity of the United States, but as they have in the past, student affairs professionals can play an integral part in encouraging the development of civic engagement habits. The suggestions offered above are simply starting points and are not intended to be a complete list. We encourage student affairs professionals to continue the conversation about ways to both promote inclusion and diversity and personal accountability and freedom of expression. NASPA director of policy research and advocacy, Teri Lyn Hinds, and assistant director of policy research and advocacy, Diana Ali, are looking forward to engaging with attendees at their pre-conference workshop on this topic at the upcoming 2018 NASPA Region IV-E Conference. Can’t join us there? Share your ideas on social media Sunday, November 11, 2018 using #MKE100!

Image source: Photo taken by Brandt Luke Zorn, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons November 1, 2018. Some rights reserved.


[1] As of spring 2018, free speech zones have been banned by state legislation in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia.

[2] Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the DoJ filed a Statement of Interest in the case of Shaw v. Burke, a court case brought against Los Angeles Community College District by Kevin Shaw which may continue to progress through the court system. A federal district court denied dismissal of the challenge of Pierce College’s use of free speech zones and the case is still pending.

[3] The Forming Open and Robust University Minds (FORUM) Act, the Campus Free Expression (CAFE) Act, and  the Campus Free Speech: Legislative Proposal from the Goldwater Institute. We summarized the key points in each proposal in our May 2018 Untangling the Threads: 2018 State Legislation Addressing Campus Speech Concerns post.

[4] For more on NASPA’s work in promoting deliberative discourse, see Agreeing to disagreeing - Promoting Civil Discussions by NASPA’s director of policy research and advocacy, Teri Lyn Hinds, and director of civic engagement, Stephanie King, in the Fall 2018 issue of Leadership Exchange.

[5] Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice. In L. Landreman (Ed.), The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators (pp. 135–150). Sterling, VA: Stylus.