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Freedom of speech is a big deal on university campuses these days. A recent spate of decisions by university administrators to permit (or forbid) various speakers to make speeches on campus has generated newsworthy controversy.

Invariably, free-speech advocates argue that a university is a place for learning, critical thinking, and critical listening. Silencing an offensive viewpoint, even when that viewpoint is calculated to offend, does nothing but drive the ideas underground, where they dodge careful examination and take on a life of their own.

Yet balanced against the desire for free speech is the desire to create safe spaces for free speech. When speech is inflammatory, it can excite the passion of proponents and opponents who may clash on the outskirts of event, destroying the opportunity for speech and dialogue altogether.

Trusteeship magazine, the publication of the Association of Governing Boards (AGB), recently covered a plenary session at the National Conference on Trusteeship called “Navigating Challenges of Freedom of Expression.” They provided readers with a summary of the discussion, which included Frank Sesno (director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University), Teresa Sullivan (former president of the University of Virginia), Janet Napolitano (president of the University of California), Sandhya Iyer (general counsel for Dartmouth College), Shauna Diggs (University of Michigan Board of Regents), and Will Creeley (director of Legal and Public Advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education).

There was really very little debate in the discussion — most everyone supports free speech, in principle. Instead, the panel explored the various ways that university constituencies understand free speech (or don’t understand it), how the very tangible budget-line cost of security can be weighed against the less tangible benefits of creating space for opposing viewpoints, and the value of having a plan.

The cost of security is particularly relevant to board members who have fiduciary responsibility for their institutions. Napolitano has had a lot of experience with this in California. She talked about reaching out to campus groups who have invited controversial speakers and asking them to consider the cost of security and what that means for the school’s budget. 

Obviously, there are a number of issues around free speech in addition to finances, and board members need to have a good idea of those issues and organizational priorities. And there is value in discussing all this before the crisis moment. Developing a plan is always a good idea, and knowing what you’re about can help a board get ahead of the narrative before it gets out of hand.

Read Trusteeship's coverage of the session on free speech at "Speaking Freely."

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