Guest Blog: An Exploration of Free Speech and Civility at Duke

When we first launched this blog, we hoped we might invite colleagues whom we admire and respect to contribute on occasion. We’re delighted to share with you today a guest essay by Michael J. Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations at Duke University. We invited him to write because we saw that Duke is doing some interesting programming to explore issues around freedom of speech and climate more thoughtfully, when the campus is not responding to an incident. Every campus is grappling with free expression issues in some fashion, and we thought colleagues might appreciate some perspective from Mike on this important topic.

Michael J. Schoenfeld

It is perhaps a great irony that one of the most difficult subjects for us to talk about is free speech, particularly the version that is the subject of attention on campus, in the media and across the internet. That colleges and universities, and the communicators at them, should have such a challenge conveying compelling messages about this fundamental standard is perhaps not surprising:

  • Activists on the right and left, and every point in between, have weaponized freedom of speech by staking out the most extreme positions, and painting any opposition to their position as wrong, dangerous and even evil.
  • The cable news/social media ecosystem ensures that any outrage, real or imagined, is amplified to ear-splitting sound. In the words of that musical bard, Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, “These go to 11.”
  • Students, faculty, alumni, donors, parents and politicians each see themselves as both subject matter experts and guardians of institutional integrity, willing to believe and advance sometimes grotesque caricatures of events on campus.
  • Principles like academic freedom, tenure, diversity and inclusion, which seem so straightforward and obvious to those on campus, can be confusing at best, and sometimes bewilderingly indefensible to many outside the academy.

Unfortunately, our principle mission of education too often takes a back seat to posturing and preening, and thoughtful consideration loses out to the demand for yet another statement or response.

Like many universities, Duke has grappled with the complexities of speech in many of its forms – controversial speakers, racially charged incidents involving students and faculty, community and campus protests about historic symbols, and the general, seemingly pervasive, inflammation of political disagreements. While we claim no omniscience in finding a solution, we are seeking to use our ability to convene diverse intellectual resources and engage in robust, constructive and respectful dialogue.

The Duke Provost’s Office sponsors an annual forum, programmed by faculty and students, to explore a contemporary and complex problem. This year, the subject is “Inquiry, Discussion and Community in the University.” Thoughtful commentators like UC Berkeley law dean (and former Duke faculty member) Erwin Chermerinsky, author Celeste Headdlee, and New York Times columnist David Brooks will join with Duke scholars and students in a one-day conference.

With a mix of case studies and panel discussions, the participants will explore academic freedom, assembly and protest, and civil discourse across the divides. We expect a large and talkative group to attend—last year’s forum on race and policing attracted several hundred attendees for a full day of difficult and sometimes painful conversation—and, we hope, take their experience back to the classrooms and residence halls and coffee shops for further debate.

There is, of course, no single, easy answer to the question, “What should we do about free speech on campus?” But programs like the Provost Forum give those of us charged with explaining the curious world of higher education to ourselves and the rest of the world some ideas for messages that just might educate, inform and, maybe, persuade.

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