Free Speech on Campus: What Colleges and Universities Can Do

By Kenneth Cloke,

As I write, it is now the year of the 60th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at U.C. Berkeley, in which I was an active participant (I am at the far right in the photo.)  It is also a time when free speech issues are again triggering campus conflicts, largely because of intense polarization over fighting in Gaza, and the mutually antagonistic activities of student supporters of Israel or Palestine.

Starting in the 1980’s, I began working as a mediator, conflict resolver, and dialogue facilitator, helping thousands of people and hundreds of organizations with vastly differing opinions, many mired in hatred and enmity, discover that they could somehow, unexpectedly, talk to each other, engage in open, honest, constructive dialogue, improve their understanding, and solve common problems.

In my experience, conflict resolution methods and processes allow people on all scales, from individuals to couples, families, schools, workplaces, and organizations--especially colleges and universities--to raise free speech to a significantly higher level of skill, where it becomes possible for authentic communication, empathetic engagement, collaborative problem solving, and profound learning to take place.  I have written several books outlining how to conduct these processes, most recently in Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy, and The Magic in Mediation.

One of the early founders of modern mediation and advocates of participatory democracy was Mary Parker Follett, who wrote The New State in 1918, in which she insightfully observed:

“[I]t is not merely that we must be allowed to govern ourselves, we must learn how to govern ourselves; it is not only that we must be given ‘free speech,’ we must learn a speech that is free; ... [I]t is not only that we must invent machinery to get a social will expressed, we must invent machinery that will get a social will created.”

It is clear, of course, that it is possible to have free speech, yet lack “a speech that is free;” to have student power, yet not know how to use it; to express an outdated social will, yet lack the skills to create a new one.  But it is this second set of tasks that allow us to move from purely procedural forms of democracy to higher-order substantive ones; and from a mere transfer of power between conflicted and competing groups to a transformation of adversarial, zero-sum, violent, domineering, power-based communications, processes, and relationships into collaborative ones. 

How might colleges and universities achieve this?  We can begin by affirming five important ideas about political differences.  First, it is not helpful to try to silence or minimize the passion and commitment people feel for what they believe in and want for the world.  Second, it is helpful to assist people in turning their passion and commitment from personally attacking their opponents to jointly tackling problems, seeking to understand what lies beneath the surface of their conflicted beliefs and desires, and searching together for core values and principles on which they can fashion solutions.  Third, it is possible, even for political activists in the grip of antagonistic passions and beliefs, to realize that they are all members of the same human family; the same campus, neighborhood, and community; the same species and planet.  Fourth, it is helpful to acknowledge that because we all live on the same planet, short of mass murder and genocide, no one is going anywhere, so the only real, sensible choice we have is to learn how to live and work together.  Fifth, we are now facing serious global problems that require us to collaborate across our differences and find ways of solving problems together if we are going to survive. 

At the level of process, rather than content, we can begin by recognizing that the ability to speak openly, honestly, empathetically, and skillfully is essential for successful problem solving on all scales.

At the level of process, rather than content, we can begin by recognizing that the ability to speak openly, honestly, empathetically, and skillfully is essential for successful problem solving on all scales, from navigating and improving interpersonal relationships to making difficult political decisions.  It has been repeatedly demonstrated in studies of small groups that diversity, dialogue, and democratic decision-making are key elements in problem solving, especially where problems are complex, layered, and multi-faceted. 

Yet when people are in conflict, whether personal or political, they often lose their perspective, forget their values and goals, and revert to lower-level child-like communications, adversarial negotiations, autocratic or dictatorial problem solving, unilateral decision-making, retributive or punitive forms of justice, and zero-sum processes that encourage them to believe that dialogue, collaboration, learning, and problem solving are entirely impossible.

Yet it is possible, for example, for universities and colleges to bring together Israelis and Palestinians, and opponents on all kinds of issues, and help them engage in civil dialogues, storytelling sessions, empathy building exercises, joint critiques of historical narratives, problem solving practices, political debates, brainstorming, research, collaborative negotiation, ground rule setting, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, restorative justice circles, mock mediations, model UN sessions, and many similar processes. 

It is equally possible for universities and colleges to hire a full-time ombudsperson to help design and facilitate these processes, train faculty and students as peer mediators and volunteer dialogue facilitators; establish campus clinical programs in social change, including community organizing, mediation, and effective political advocacy; and to create academically rigorous majors with required courses in mediation, dialogue, collaborative negotiation, consensus building, conflict resolution, international peace building, and similar topics.

It is possible for universities and colleges to periodically assign students to on-going or episodic dialogue groups; to conduct teach-ins with diverse speakers and points of view, and opportunities for small group discussion; to maintain a list of professional mediators and dialogue facilitators who would be able to intervene early, when divisive issues threaten to turn political differences into battles for campus supremacy; and to invite participants and advocates to join in open, campus-wide learning experiences – not by shutting down debate, banning unpopular groups, or expelling student advocates, but drawing them into honest conversation with those whose ideas they disparage. 

Through dialogue, mediation, and restorative justice, I have learned that simply shifting the way we speak to each other, without in the least tempering the content of our beliefs and values, automatically encourages listening and dialogue, elicits authentic communications, supports collaborative negotiation, invites deep learning, and gradually rebuilds the trust that is essential for joint problem solving, without having to force people to support the content of what they take to be untrue.  

In the absence of these higher order communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution skills and processes, it is easy to slip into a state of impasse that encourages angry, hostile individuals and groups to exercise their freedom of speech primarily for the purpose of blocking or destroying the free speech of others, or punishing them for having passionate ideas.  

Unfortunately, when we oppose free speech rights for our opponents, we make the future repression of our own speech far more likely.  We also cheat ourselves and others out of the opportunity to turn highly adversarial denunciations into learning, and slip into pointless, hostile, destructive communications that encourage others to suppress democracy, both in content, and in processes and relationships. 

whatever connects us empathetically and collaboratively reduces our resort to fear, distrust, and hatred, which are the deeper truths of our hostility toward others, and encourages communication and learning, which are the understated goals of free speech, and the implicit promises of higher education.

In the end, whatever connects us empathetically and collaboratively reduces our resort to fear, distrust, and hatred, which are the deeper truths of our hostility toward others, and encourages communication and learning, which are the understated goals of free speech, and the implicit promises of higher education.  The only way I know of achieving them is to bring opposing perspectives, experiences, beliefs, and ideas together into dialogue, problem solving, collaborative negotiation, restorative circles, and mediation, and listen to what emerges. 

It may sound bizarre or self-serving, but I find it increasingly clear and open for all to see, that no single highly polarized political group is exclusively correct, that each is correct about something, and that the only intelligent way forward is together. For higher education institutions, this means encouraging learning through open discussion, dialogue, debate, negotiation, problem solving, mediation, and a search for restorative justice. 

There are no unilateral judicial or military solutions to the wars being fought in Ukraine or the Middle East, or Sudan, Myanmar, DR Congo, and elsewhere.  They lead only to death and misery, grief and guilt, environmentally unsustainability and self-destruction, so figuring out how to live together has to become a priority over anti-democratic, brutal, inhumane, potentially genocidal alternatives, or the consequences will begin to multiply, and worse disasters will follow.  The choice is ours.

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