Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

Free Speech is Not a Zero-Sum Game

Sean Decatur
March 15, 2018

Note: This post was originally published on March 14 as a letter to the editor on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Gallup’s new poll of student attitudes about free speech (“College Students Want Free Speech — Sort Of,” The Chronicle, March 12) has struck a chord with college and university leaders because it echoes the dissonance many of us are experiencing on campus today. But as much as the poll gets right about shifting attitudes, its central premise — that free expression and a civil, inclusive society are in opposition — is misguided.

Among the questions presented to students was: “If you had to choose, which is more important for a democracy, a diverse and inclusive society or protecting free speech rights?” The results that 53 percent of those surveyed felt that diversity and inclusion are more important than free speech feeds a developing narrative about “liberal snowflake” students and colleges that favor “coddling” over rigorous discourse.

Yet this narrative is based on a logical fallacy. A free and inclusive society is not a zero-sum game, and the survey tells us that our students know it. We do not have to choose between the right to have a voice and the right to belong in society, and any narrative that suggests that we do lacks imagination, courage or both.

Building a community where the rights of all members to speak are protected and where everyone has their humanity protected is not easy. Indeed, while the American experiment in democracy has struggled with this for over 200 years, making significant progress, we have not yet found a solution. And we will not find a solution as long as we keep framing our choices as false dichotomies. The way forward is not a choice between free speech and inclusion, but rather a fusion; a vision of inclusive democracy, and inclusive citizenship.

The challenge for colleges and universities is not to harmonize discordant interests but to recognize that these interests — and the discord they sometimes can sound — are in harmony with a healthy democracy. We must equip our students to recognize and reject false choices, and to be leading voices for a better way forward.