What to consider when responding to controversies over free speech and inclusion

When confronted with a speech-related controversy on campus, it is essential that administrators are prepared to respond nimbly and effectively and to address the concerns of the stakeholders involved. After assessing whether there are any immediate threats to public safety and gathering as much information as possible about the incident, analyze the incident to see what factors you need to take into consideration in your response. Free speech issues on campus are complex and best analyzed through multiple lenses.

Law and policy considerations

Private and public universities are subject to laws differently, but both have legal obligations and policies which will shape responses to speech-related incidents. Some questions to consider include:

  • What laws and university policies, if any, are relevant to this incident?
  • How might they shape the institution’s response?

Academic considerations

Academic institutions have unique obligations to academic freedom and to promote a healthy environment for open inquiry and productive dialogue. Some questions to consider include:

  • What academic or pedagogical considerations are relevant? Can this incident be a learning experience?
  • How can you ensure that the dialogue surrounding this incident is productive, rigorous, and balanced?
  • Will your actions be consistent with the need to foster an intellectual climate for free speech, open inquiry, and dissent?

Community considerations

Campuses are communities with core values like diversity, inclusion, academic freedom, and open inquiry. They have histories and stakeholders that shape the context of these incidents. These factors should be considered in developing institutional responses. Some questions to consider include:

  • Who are the stakeholders in this incident and to what degree is the university accountable to them?
  • How does this incident fit within the context of other recent events on campus?
  • How has this incident affected the campus community? 
  • Does this incident challenge university values like academic freedom, open inquiry, diversity, and inclusion?
  • Has the community had the opportunity to voice their opinions or concerns? If demands are being made, where are they coming from? Consider historical and systemic issues that may contribute to them.
  • If appropriate, what actions can you take to help address any fears or concerns community members may feel in response to this incident?

Types of response

When controversy arises on campus, there are a number of different actions you can take to address the issue. It is important to weigh a range of responses to determine what is appropriate on a case-by-case basis. See Different ways to respond to controversies over free speech and inclusion

Further reading