Most Americans don’t like the way we talk to each other these days, but no one seems to know how to fix it. The Colorado State University System proposes that we start at the most obvious point: Let’s talk about it.
A Pew Research study last year documented what most of us could easily discern from our daily social media threads: Political discourse in this country has become increasingly negative, hyperbolic, and less based in reality. But the problem isn’t just with candidates debating on a stage or families discussing the upcoming election – the negativity and frustration has spilled over into our ability to talk publicly and productively about all sorts of sensitive and nuanced topics, i.e. pretty much everything that matters to our communities and society.
During my years as a university president, I had a short answer for those who wanted the institution to make someone else stop saying something dumb or offensive. That was this: “You really don’t want the university president – or any authority figure – deciding who gets to talk and who doesn’t.” Heading down that road means giving up, once and for all, on the American experiment, which, with all its failures and disappointments, is still something that most of us want to see preserved. When speech is offensive, harmful, and morally wrong – which it can be – the Constitution and 250 years of constitutional law tell us that the best and most powerful counter to it is more speech.
But how does that feel, in real life, to an 18-year old confronting racist speech on a campus where they already were struggling to feel safe? How does it feel to descendants of the Nazi Holocaust when a swastika is scrawled on the wall in a downtown alley? How does it feel to a faculty member delivering a lecture while a student sits in the front row wearing a T-shirt promoting a candidate the professor despises – and holding a phone camera in the hopes that the professor will lose their cool and provide a memorable social media meltdown? How does it feel to an older white guy who’s dedicated his life to teaching to be told that nothing he has to contribute matters anymore? How does it feel to the invited campus speaker who finds herself shouted down in an auditorium by people with opposing views?
Each of these situations potentially could lead to demands that someone be punished, silenced, sanctioned. And honestly, looking at specific circumstances, I could make a personal argument for doing so in nearly every case – because sometimes these situations cut deep and inflame our sense of humanity, of fundamental decency, of basic right and wrong.
But then, I stop and think about the beauty of that First Amendment to the Constitution – the Amendment that ensured civil rights marchers of the 1960s had a voice under the law that state and local governments wanted to deny them. The Amendment that allowed members of CSU’s women’s softball team in the early 1990s to allege inequitable treatment – the beginnings of a transformation (including a landmark lawsuit) that led to the University becoming a model of Title IX compliance nationwide. The Amendment that allowed a student 15 years ago to come to the President’s Office and strenuously state his expectation that the office and campus needed to care more about the environment, one of the first steps in a movement that would propel CSU – not always willingly – to become the most environmentally sustainable university in the country. The Amendment that gave people I admire – like Professor Irene Vernon and VP Blanche Hughes and others – the OK to challenge me and the status quo when I was a campus president, in their drive to open doors of opportunity for generations of students.
Free speech is the heart of higher education, and universities have a unique and important role to play in leading contentious conversations around critical societal issues. That’s the nature of what we do – we argue about ideas, we debate theories, we recognize that truth can be elusive, sometimes hiding and often evolving along with the research and knowledge we exist to conduct. We sometimes fail in actuality; we don’t always function as a model of civil and respectful discourse. But no institution in our society is as suited to attempt to repair our broken discourse as a university.
In that spirit, this newsletter has a simple theme: Let’s talk about how we talk to each other. Let’s talk about free speech, and about the what exercise and experience of free speech feels like in real life. I’ve invited a group of my colleagues with different perspectives to write what they wanted to share, and I’m grateful to all of them for lending their voices to the discussion. Next month, we’ll use this same space to talk about civic engagement, free speech, and elections. I welcome your thoughts, your criticisms, and yes, your speech as you think about the issues raised here.