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The following guest column by Clinic director Clare R. Norins was published by                          The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on October 4, 2022:

In recent years, debates over safe spaces and cancel culture have put college campuses at the forefront of the polarizing and controversial national discussion around free speech. Last month, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (formerly known as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) released its
annual rankings, showing which universities are doing the best job of cultivating strong free speech environments and policies in this challenging climate.

The ranking for the University of Georgia, where I teach, was decidedly lackluster, with an overall ranking of 162 out of about 200 schools. I was pleased to see we rated in the top 20 schools for administrative support (students feeling like the school and its leadership support free speech) but was disappointed to see we scored at 200th on openness (students feeling like they can have difficult conversations on campus) and 188th on tolerance for allowing controversial speakers on campus.

The good news is that I’ve seen firsthand how many UGA students are strongly supportive of free speech and also fully capable of grappling with the nuances and challenges of a robust free speech environment.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a discussion among nearly 100 UGA undergraduate and graduate students about the role the First Amendment plays in their own lives, at UGA, and beyond. During the conversation, hosted by the Freedom Forum, the students talked about press freedom (including for student newspapers), the free speech environment on campus, and how, if at all, campus administrators should get involved. These students felt that the First Amendment is critical in protecting students’ freedom to express themselves — even if it means living with the social consequences and potential backlash for voicing a dissenting opinion.

I was deeply encouraged to see that the results of the FIRE rankings did not seem to entirely reflect reality as UGA students engaged seriously with issues of the First Amendment. However, it’s a good reminder that fostering an environment of free speech requires intentional, ongoing work by all of us: administrators, educators, and students.

Universities have a responsibility to support both students and faculty in having open and respectful discussions in class and on campus without fear of retribution. Introducing strategies for facilitating constructive discussions around sensitive or controversial topics can be a valuable resource for campus educators and students alike. This might include, for example, introduction to discussion techniques like Reflective Structured Dialogue, which is an approach that moves people away from defensively arguing their position and instead uses “curious questions” to unpack and critique each side’s viewpoint.

Relatedly, faculty and campus leaders should be intentional and consistent about encouraging and thanking students for sharing divergent viewpoints, irrespective of whether they agree with the substance. As the Supreme Court noted in Keyishian v. Board of Regents in 1967, the classroom is a “marketplace of ideas” and America’s future depends on its leaders having been exposed to a “robust exchange of ideas” and “a multitude of tongues.” This is no less true today than it was 50 years ago.

But just as important as university employees fostering a culture of free speech, students themselves can greatly contribute to a climate of free expression by mustering the courage to speak up in principled dissent when they do not agree with the majority view, affirming their peers who take this brave step, and resisting the urge to “cancel” fellow students who disagree with them.

The importance of protecting robust and dynamic free speech at our universities echoes well beyond the campus boundaries. At a time when growing numbers of Americans say that our system of democracy is under threat, ensuring that our nation’s young people keenly understand and respect our constitutional freedoms is more important now than ever. Indeed, educational institutions have a critical, central role to play in instilling those values. This is especially true in Georgia, which was ground zero for various schemes to overturn the results of the 2020 election and remains a key battleground state in our electoral democracy.

During the event hosted by the Freedom Forum, we saw hopeful evidence that engaging students in dialogue around free speech issues really moves the needle. Among the students who participated in the session and completed a survey afterward, 60% indicated they felt more confident sharing their opinions online, and 57% said they were more likely to have a conversation with someone they disagree with politically.

By scaling up opportunities for dialogue around the importance of free expression and how it plays a role in our students’ lives, we empower them to speak out, even when they are not sure how they will be received, and teach them to respect the speech rights of their peers, even when they disagree. By graduating good stewards of the First Amendment, we equip students to be better informed citizens and leaders in bridging the divides that hamstring our country today.

Image above by Flore W from Pixabay