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Commentary: Make campuses safe for diversity and free speech

By Suzanne Nossel Many Americans now contemplate how we can heal in the wake of a brutal, polarizing election that laid bare our nation's history of entrenched racial and gender inequality.

By Suzanne Nossel

Many Americans now contemplate how we can heal in the wake of a brutal, polarizing election that laid bare our nation's history of entrenched racial and gender inequality.

Over the past several years, these questions have raged on college campuses, where students have debated course curriculums, campus speakers, building names, Halloween costumes, how to dress for parties, and ethnic dining hall food as proxies for much larger struggles over power, stigma, fairness, and inclusivity. Very often these controversies have manifested in language: what is considered offensive, what can and can be said, and how to respond to words that cause discomfort or anger.

A series of high-profile debates have been raging about how to guarantee the rights, and enable the equal participation of all, regardless of race, religion, gender, LGBT identities, and myriad other personal attributes, while at the same time holding steadfast to the principles of free speech, freedom of assembly, and academic freedom.

There are lessons for our larger society in how this campus debate can evolve. To begin with, any conversation about free speech, diversity, and inclusion has to start with an acceptance of a changing America and a changing college campus. Within the coming decades, America will become "majority minority"; racial minority groups will account for a majority of the U.S. population. Members of historic minority groups are already in the majority in many college student bodies. Campuses designed by and for generations of white males have adapted and will need to continue to reinvent themselves to address the needs of students with vastly different backgrounds and worldviews.

At the same time, the drive for inclusivity and fairness cannot override the values that have drawn consecutive generations of students to higher education in the first place: academic freedom, open discourse, and the ability to analyze and appreciate a breadth of dissenting views.

In furtherance of this necessary discourse, PEN America and the National Constitution Center will this week bring together First Amendment experts, university faculty, and student activists to discuss and debate the future of free speech at U.S. universities in the context of our changing national demographics. This public event follows the Oct. 14 release of "And Campus For All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Freedom of Speech at U.S. Universities," a major report by PEN America analyzing recent campus speech controversies and sounding an alarm bell that a rising cohort of Americans may be growing alienated from core American values of free speech. Accompanying the report are the PEN America Principles, which offer concrete guidance on how universities can approach campus speakers, the concept of safe space, campus civility, microaggressions, and the language of harm, trigger warnings, and the relationship between speech and harassment under Title IX, among other topics.

Free speech advocates face an urgent task to articulate how unfettered expression can be reconciled with urgent demands for greater equality and inclusion and, indeed, how such freedoms are essential to the realization of these goals. In PEN America's view, the drive for greater equality and inclusion on campus is to be strongly encouraged; at its best it represents a new phase of the civil rights, feminist, and other valiant rights struggles ongoing for decades. Enabling new voices to be heard will help campuses better reflect American society and render them a more robust environment for expression for all.

Our report has elicited responses from student leaders, scholars, faculty, and administrators from across the United States. Most of them are eager to find tools to overcome polarization and reconcile new demands for inclusion and fairness with core values of the defense of even unpopular speech. As populations and values change, a measure of clash is inevitable. The test for all of us is whether we can capitalize on these controversies to press forward to new ways of thinking and new areas of common ground that help break the impasse. This week's discussion, it is hoped, will add to that understanding. In our view, these highly publicized controversies have the potential to unleash and amplify new and important voices that can enrich debates on campus and in the wider world, thereby expanding free speech - and freedom - for everyone's benefit.

During this long and painful election season, we are all guilty of talking past one another. The sense of stunned shock that many now feel is a reflection that, despite endless hours of parsing, there is still far too much that we have failed to listen to, hear, understand, and absorb. Spewing insults and restating positions isn't the answer. Nor is compromising on core values. The road to progress begins with methodical dialogue, the explication of diverse positions and their foundations, and bringing together the most divergent forces to figure out where and how they can begin to agree.

Through our report and this week's convening, PEN America is pointing the way toward a campus that is truly open to full participation by students of all backgrounds and viewpoints, while upholding - and in fact advancing - the values of free speech and unfettered inquiry that have made the American system of higher education the envy of the rest of the world. Maybe in the end it will be the students who teach the politicians a thing or two about democracy and civil discourse.

Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, will be among the panelists discussing "The State of Campus Free Speech" Thursday at the National Constitution Center. The event is sold out but will be streamed live at