Missouri’s Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution recently held our annual symposium in coordination with our Journal of Dispute Resolution. The symposium, entitled “The First Amendment on Campus: Identifying Principles for Best Practices for Managing and Resolving Disputes,” was organized by Professors Bob Jerry and Chris Wells. They specialize, respectively, in insurance law and freedom of speech (among other things), and they joined our Center because of their interest in dispute resolution as well.
Last year, in the wake of the troubling events on our campus, Bob chaired the University of Missouri’s Ad Hoc Joint Committee on Protests, Public Spaces, Free Speech and the Press. Chris was a member of the Committee.
The purpose of the symposium was to explore the complex intersection between free expression and conflict at universities and discuss whether and how university leaders can successfully navigate this intersection while simultaneously remaining true to the mission of the university and protecting the values of the First Amendment. It addressed the following questions:
● What are the appropriate limits on free expression on campuses? Are they different from – i.e., broader or narrower – free speech principles generally?
● To what extent should we view “free speech conflicts” as something to be managed?
● Through what processes and procedures can university leaders anticipate and prevent free expression disputes? How do we write those rules, and what challenges exist in doing so?
● When such disputes arise, what processes and procedures can university leaders deploy to resolve them? What challenges exist in designing and implementing campus dispute resolution procedures?
For me, suppression of speech on campus is very problematic. I subscribe to the school of thought that the appropriate response to offensive speech generally is more speech, not suppression or violence. I recognize that, given my privileged status, this may be an easier position for me to take than people in groups that have been oppressed. Even so, this free-speech principle applies to all and can protect oppressed minorities whose speech would be suppressed. Beyond these instrumental considerations, I think that speech suppression generally is bad, with only limited, narrow exceptions.
At the symposium, I came to appreciate that free speech is not free. Several speakers referred to incidents where universities had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide extra security around events involving controversial speakers. People have been injured in some of these events, resulting in additional economic and non-economic costs. Some of these costs are unavoidable, but some are not. Moreover, these incidents divert attention and resources away from places where they would be better invested.
There has been a lot of attention to – and criticism of – willingness of people in colleges and universities to suppress speech. Some of this criticism is particularly directed at liberals. However, these problems are widespread through our society. Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell frequently has written about disturbing trends of people justifying speech suppression, sometimes focusing on problematic attitudes of campus liberals. In a recent column, she cited studies showing that these attitudes actually are more prevalent among older people than younger (presumably student-age) people. Surveys suggest that both liberals and conservatives justify suppression of views that they disagree with. Moreover, efforts to suppress free expression occur throughout society, including in business, government, sports, and entertainment, among others.
I think it’s counter-productive to argue which group most undermines free expression. In this time of heightened polarization, such efforts exacerbate the problems.
Instead, use of dispute system design techniques is more likely to produce better results, as described at the symposium. Of course, this would not be a complete or perfect solution. But I think they can help us move in the right direction, increasing respectful communication and reducing counter-productive conflict.