University life is supposed to be about a free and lively exchange of ideas. But what do universities do when some of the ideas espoused are highly offensive to those around them?
That’s the question facing many universities, and Oregon State University is no exception. From street preachers in the library quad to menacing chalk messages on campus sidewalks, there are plenty of examples of expression on campus that have raised the hackles of students and staff.
Sometimes Oregon State administrators are faced with demands to remove the offending message or block the speaker from campus. But as a state university, Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for Student Affairs, explains that Oregon State is actually generally forbidden from blocking such expressions, which fall under the free speech clauses of both the federal and state constitutions.
In order to clarify the university’s position on the free speech, the university has recently created a Freedom of Expression document, based on the input of a committee that gathered over the spring and summer to draft the document.
“We looked at a dozen different documents from other universities, some which were 30 pages long, some were 2 pages long. We drew common themes from those but it ended up that our document looks really different,” Brubaker-Cole said. “We achieved a high level of clarity by trying to be as concise as possible and really edit our statement down to the core ideas we wanted to get across.”
The document will be used to help explain the university’s actions, or perceived lack thereof, when a negatively perceived incident occurs on campus, as well as to set the tone for open, frank discussion around the community.
“Across the country and at OSU we’ve seen a number of incidents we’d clearly call hate speech. We’ve been asked to shut it down because people find it offensive, and because there is not a broad and deep understanding of freedom of speech,” Brubaker-Cole said. “This (document) is intended to help people understand in a quick and clear way that speech that is highly offensive to most people is still protected.
In most public spaces on campus, including quads and sidewalks, unless the message or speaker expresses a specific threat of violence against a particular individual or runs afoul of the university’s general time/place/manner standards, they’re free to say what they think, no matter how offensive.“People don’t always know what the underlying principles of freedom of expression are,” Brubaker-Cole said. “Part of the purpose of creating the document was to raise awareness and have a common understanding that can sit at the core of the foundation of discussions we have at OSU.”
Protecting freedom of expression doesn’t mean that Oregon State can’t, or won’t, do anything to combat messages of hate on campus. In fact, Brubaker-Cole said the university is hoping to expand educational efforts around counter-speech, actions which directly address offensive speech and hopefully provide a more positive, better informed viewpoint.
As a university, Oregon State administrators can issue formal statements that address and counter incidents of hate speech. Those statements are often picked up by the press and their reach expanded beyond OSU. Other counter-speech by administrators on behalf of OSU can take place in smaller groups or more targeted audiences, depending on the context.
“Our speech as a university is protected under the First Amendment and we will exercise counter-speech when we see speech acts on our campus or the community that do not align with the values of inclusion,” Brubaker-Cole said.
For Brubaker-Cole, educating students on the value of the First Amendment, and on healthy discourse in general, is essential to making them better citizens.
“This is one of the foundational values of what it means to be a member of a democratic society. One of our highest missions is to educate people for citizenship. We need to provide opportunities for students to practice talking about their most deeply held beliefs and engage with people who have conflicting beliefs, and understand the stakes in engaging in those conversations in a way that is respectful.”
And universities must embrace both the benefits and stresses that come from a place where conflicting views are expressed.
“I also think that is one of the inherent qualities of intellectual inquiry, is encountering a wide variety of opinions and viewpoints and being able to engage with those viewpoints and sometimes suspend judgment and take time to consider, and sometimes to exercise judgment once you’ve given that consideration. That’s a fundamental component of intellectual engagement, and we have to model it and practice it.”
In addition to the Freedom of Expression document, an institutional statement supporting and responding to student activism and demonstrations has also been drafted and is in the final stages of approval. The statement includes a guiding philosophy which outlines the university’s approach to assembly and demonstration, and a practical plan that ensures the people engaged are acting in accord with the stated philosophy.
“The purpose is to preserve the rights to free speech and assembly and sets the expectation for what’s going to happen in the event of a demonstration or protest,” Brubaker-Cole said. “The university will enact the lowest possible level of response within the limits of safety.”
A response team of high-level administrators will be assigned to work with any student activists or demonstrators, and a group of neutral ‘observers’ made up of appropriate faculty and staff members will be asked to attend any protest or demonstration and to document what’s happening to ensure there’s a neutral record of what’s occurred.
Brubaker-Cole said the response to student demonstrations will not be to shut them down or hide away from them, but to use them as an opportunity for engagement and discussion.
“Our approach will be to actively engage in dialogue and reach a resolution that’s satisfactory to all,” she said, rather than view protests as an annoyance or a threat. And the university’s protocol recognizes that engaging in these demonstrations may be a key educational opportunity for students.
The Freedom of Expression statement and the document on student activism are intimately tied, Brubaker-Cole said, because respectful disagreement is at their core.
“We’ve become fearful of offending people and hesitant to express ourselves because of some of the vitriol we’re seeing in the public political sphere,” she said. “It’s a very difficult climate to help people understand what it means to be respectful in disagreement.”
On Nov. 17, Oregon State will host a panel discussion entitled “Freedom of Expression and OSU.” The discussion will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. in the Memorial Union Lounge and will be facilitated by Christopher McKnight Nichols, associate professor of history within the College of Liberal Arts, who is a nationally noted expert on U.S. political history.
~ Theresa Hogue