2017 Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution Symposium

Issues Praecipe

The free exchange of controversial or sensitive ideas is fundamental to a university’s academic enterprise. However, events on many of our nation’s campuses since 2015 vividly demonstrate that operationalizing this principle in a university community presents enormous challenges to leaders of universities and colleges. Opposing narratives compete to describe today’s landscape. One narrative portrays today’s students as hypersensitive and intolerant as they seek protections against offensive words and ideas, which results in the sacrifice of both intellectual rigor and First Amendment values. A counter-narrative posits that the rise in verbal abuse and violence against historically persecuted groups requires the prohibition or limitation of hateful, intolerant, or threatening speech on our campuses, as learning becomes impossible in an environment where members of the community feel unsafe.

Universities, functioning essentially as small cities, create rules to regulate the use of space and facilities on campus for expressive activities as well as the conduct of those who host, attend, or wish to protest the visits of controversial speakers. But articulating and implementing processes for drafting these rules in a highly charged environment is difficult. Many universities have contemplated (and sometimes created) early intervention teams to defuse free expression disputes, but the existence and operation of these teams have been challenged as impermissibly chilling First Amendment rights, which has the effect of pitting conflict management against the values of the First Amendment.

The purpose of this Symposium is to explore the complex intersection between free expression and conflict at universities and discuss whether and how university leaders can successfully navigate this intersection while simultaneously remaining true to the mission of the university and protecting the values of the First Amendment.

  • What are the appropriate limits on free expression on campuses? Are they different from – i.e., broader or narrower – free speech principles generally?
  • To what extent should we view “free speech conflicts” as something to be managed?
  • Through what processes and procedures can university leaders anticipate and prevent free expression disputes? How do we write those rules, and what challenges exist in doing so?
  • When such disputes arise, what processes and procedures can university leaders deploy to resolve them? What challenges exist in designing and implementing campus dispute resolution procedures?