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Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut (via m01229’s Flickrsteam)

American college campuses are hotbeds of political activism, frequently roiled by controversies over issues of free speech, diversity and inclusion, and student protest. While these conversations generally speak of a lively, self-examining democracy, the lines of conduct for administrators, faculty, and students are sometimes murky, and debates swiftly spiral out of control. In an effort to help all sides involved to navigate through these delicate situations, PEN America has launched a comprehensive online resource that provides practical guidance on how to address such issues in the classroom, on the quad, and online.

PEN’s Campus Free Speech Guide offers case studies on how to address hateful speech with information sheets explaining the law, sample policies, and sample statements, among other tools. The guide is the product of three years of consultation with university students, faculty, and administrators nationwide. “Now more than ever, university leaders and students need a go-to resource to understand how to protect free speech and keep their communities open and thriving,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s campus free speech project. “We hope the guide serves as a starting to place to inform campus stakeholders not only about the law, but also about best practices for how to promote dialogue, encourage the free exchange of ideas, and ensure an inclusive environment where all community members have opportunities to be heard.”

Louisiana State University campus (photo by Spatms via Wikimedia Commons)

In a section titled “Campus Climate,” PEN America analyzes the case of a controversy around a building at Yale University. In 2015, student activists campaigned for renaming a residential college named after John C. Calhoun, a prominent proponent of slavery before the Civil War. After initially denying the request, Yale announced a 12-member committee to examine the issue. After four months of discussions, the committee released a report that outlined a new set of principles on renaming university buildings and symbols. In February 2017, Yale finally announced that it would rename Calhoun College to honor Grace Murray Hopper, a Yale PhD, pioneering computer scientist, and rear admiral in the US Navy.

“By taking the time to develop a set of principles around renaming and by engaging with different stakeholders at the university, Yale can fairly claim that its renaming process was multipronged, thorough, and inclusive,” PEN says. “Changing names does not necessarily mean the erasure of a university’s past; on the contrary, the renaming process can involve a critical engagement with history that is neither superficial nor reactionary.”

Verbal discrimination and harassment in or out of class are indefensible, but can an overzealous interpretation of the rules inhibit a professor’s right to free speech? Here, PEN brings the case of Teresa Buchanan, a Louisiana State University professor, who was fired for using crude language. Buchanan offenses included saying “Fuck no” in class, making a joke about sex in long-term relationships, and using the word “pussy” off-campus. The professor sued, claiming that the university based its decision to fire her on an overly expansive definition of sexual harassment that oversteps the law. A federal judge dismissed the suit in 2018. Buchanan’s appeal on the decision was rejected in 2019. “Buchanan is a casualty of overbroad definitions of sexual harassment,” PEN’s guide says. “Policies concerning verbal discrimination and harassment cannot be so overbroad as to restrict or chill speech, but ideals of free expression cannot and should never be used as an excuse to justify harassment.”

Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2017 CPAC in National Harbor, Maryland. (photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons)

And how are academic institutions and their student to act when a polarizing speaker is invited to campus (for example,  a students’ protest against Besty DeVos’s speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School)? “When an invited speaker is likely to be controversial, those issuing the invitation should consider whether outreach to other stakeholders, facilitating counter-speech or other measures are appropriate to ensure that the speech is aired without negative repercussions,” PEN recommends. Rescinding an invitation to speak on campus should be made only “in the rarest of circumstances,” the guide instructs. “Except in the most extreme cases, concerns over threats of violence or the potential outbreak of violence should not be grounds for withdrawing an invitation or canceling a controversial speech or event,” it adds. The guide defends students’ right to protest against controversial speakers but warns that they “should not be permitted to shutdown, shout-down or obstruct speech, preventing others from hearing the speaker.”

The Campus Free Speech Guide offers detailed analyses of several other study cases, with lucid recommendations on how to avoid situations that can lead to violent confrontations or destroy careers. “Our university campuses are crucial breeding grounds for the broadest range of ideas and opinions,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel in a statement. “Building on years of research and consultation, we are moving beyond finger-pointing over curbs on speech to advance concrete solutions that enable everyone on campus to have their say.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...