The first time Braden Lawyer saw the “campus preacher,” he was puzzled. He had just started at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. – less than three hours by car from his tiny hometown of Elnora, but a whole world away.
Such preachers show up on the campus regularly, and often draw crowds with statements that many students find jarring or offensive, about all kinds of people who will burn eternally for all sorts of sins.
Mr. Lawyer could never have predicted that just a few years later, he’d be walking in the preacher’s shoes – to make a point about free speech.
It was only for a minute. He donned a suit, got up on stage in front of some 6,000 first-year students during orientation, and shouted words he’d never say in real life at a cluster of girls strolling by in short shorts.
His fellow actors portrayed three ways students might react: One wanted to hit him, one wanted the dean to intervene, and one wanted to debate him.
As campuses around the country have simmered and erupted in polarized protests and debates in recent years, more are considering how they can help students navigate free expression – sometimes with a push from legislators.
This year Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, and North Carolina have mandated campus free speech policies, and a handful of other states are considering such laws. Some schools have decided that First Amendment instruction should be included right from the start, during a time typically reserved for talk of meal plans and dorm rules.
“We needed to take the opportunity in orientation to simply educate students how free speech works at a public university,” says Daniel Carpenter, Purdue’s director of student success. “Among some, there was an expectation that the university would do things [that were] unrealistic about controlling speech, or impossible, or illegal.”
The recent disruption of conservative speakers on campuses from the University of California at Berkeley to Middlebury in Vermont is driving the appetite for the civics lessons. Administrators find themselves in the middle of a values tug-of-war, one that requires guidance to create safe environments where constitutional – and civil – rights are respected.
“What may be a conservative cause today might not be five years from now. This affects the health and well-being of higher education in general,” says Azhar Majeed, vice president of policy reform at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in Philadelphia, which has worked with Purdue and other campuses to qualify them for the group’s “green light” rating for free speech.
“There is a lot more to do, but it is encouraging to see schools reach out to students the moment they get to campus,” he says.
The approach at Purdue
At Purdue – whose approach has become a model for other schools considering adding the topic to orientation – the new session that Lawyer participated in last year featured three skits. After each skit, a panel of administrators and legal experts weighed in – explaining, for instance, why the First Amendment prevents a public university from restricting a person speaking on the campus mall, unless the speech meets narrow exceptions, such as falsely defaming or genuinely threatening someone. The skits depict common situations students face, such as an offensive flag on a dorm door, and a professor bringing up possible parallels between a United State political campaign and Nazi propaganda. (See a video here https://youtu.be/uy85haP5fB4)
Information sessions can become a blur for students, so Purdue orientation director Kasi Jones quietly observed students’ reactions to the preacher during the first week of school. “I kind of hovered around the tree…. Two girls walked by [him] and said, ‘We learned about this at [orientation], just keep going.’ Hearing that, I was like, Oh my gosh, they listened!”
Among US college students, 78 percent agree that colleges should create “an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints,” even if offensive or biased, the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute reported in 2016. But some students say universities should restrict offensive speech.
Free-speech advocates and many conservatives have grown increasingly concerned about student protest groups that shout down or block controversial speakers rather than hearing them out or challenging them in respectful debate.
Lawmakers aren’t always willing to wait for campuses to step in, as the recent legislation suggests. In addition, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used her bully pulpit in July to encourage lawmakers to push back against “intolerance” on campus.
This viewpoint may help explain why nearly 6 out of 10 Republicans now say colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country – while 10 years ago the same number said they had a positive effect, the Pew Research Center reported in July.
Could regulations backfire?
But even some Republicans think the impulse to legislate could backfire.
In Wisconsin, a bill that passed the Assembly in June was opposed by all Democrats and one Republican – Rep. Bob Gannon of West Bend. It would require the state university system to address free speech policies during orientation. It would also mandate a disciplinary hearing for students who disrupt the free expression of others – and suspension or expulsion after a second offense.
“People that want to use this law to stifle speech could easily do it,” Representative Gannon says.
After an “indoctrination,” he says, referring to the orientation requirement, “I suspect these 17-, 18-year-old undergrads are going to say it’s easier to be silent on abortion, gun rights, issues that are uncomfortable on campus,” rather than risk their expensive degree.
The bill hasn’t yet been taken up by the state Senate.
Many in higher education also say the premise that universities are bastions of liberal intolerance is inaccurate. It’s “a narrative to demonize our institutions of higher education,” says David Sanders, a biology professor at Purdue.
Professor Sanders says that while the orientation session is a worthy endeavor, he doesn’t think Purdue leaders have followed through on commitments they made to strongly condemn racism while also promoting free speech (he advocates this approach: “censure, not censor”).
Protests are part of campus life
Balancing free speech with other values became a high priority for the University of Mississippi after heated reactions to the 2012 election. So leaders there created “Respect the M,” an orientation session based on the university creed – seven statements affirming such commitments as “respect for the dignity of each person” and “fairness and civility.”
New students often don’t realize when they first arrive that political tensions and protests are part of campus life, says Jacob Ferguson, an orientation leader heading into his junior year. Respect the M cuts down on the surprise factor and helps them learn “how to voice their opinion.”
This summer, it included a video of more experienced students sharing how they’ve lived the creed.
“College is a time where you are supposed to hear opinions that are different from yours,” says Savannah Smith, an Ole Miss senior and orientation coordinator. “I have best friends … that are so different from me and have made me see beyond my perspective.… Imparting that to the younger students … creates a culture where they really take ownership of this creed.”
Lawyer, now a Purdue senior applying to medical schools, says he’s hopeful more students will feel comfortable learning from their differences as successive classes receive this education.
“It’s not limiting thought whatsoever,” Lawyer says. “Professors can teach how they choose to teach; people can say what they need to say. [We’re] letting thought be as open as possible, because that’s where you find progress.”