In a polarized national climate, free speech and First Amendment protections have drawn increasing attention on college campuses. With the advent of open white nationalism, expressions of white supremacy, and the potential for hate speech, campuses have sought to protect student safety and guard against the harassment of minoritized students. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) indicates, “An open society depends on liberal education, and the whole enterprise of liberal education is founded on the principle of free speech.” At the same time, however, the ACLU warns that the First Amendment does not protect behavior that involves “targeted harassment or threats, or that creates a pervasively hostile environment for vulnerable students.” Similarly, in its 1992 statement on “Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes,” the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) indicates that freedom of thought and expression are essential to institutions of higher learning but warns that civility is fragile and can easily be destroyed.

Balancing the interests of free speech with these concerns has become increasingly difficult. According to a recent 100-page report issued by PEN America (2019), a national political debate has erupted over free speech, hate speech, and the attainment of diversity and inclusion. The report asks how institutions of higher education can uphold democratic values in a demographically diverse country while attempting to address legacies of racial exclusion and bigotry.

Weighing in on issues of free speech, President Trump’s recent executive order requires federal grant-making agencies ensure that institutions receiving federal research funds comply with laws and regulations that involve free academic inquiry. The Trump administration has filed statements of interest in five free-speech lawsuits against the University of Iowa, the University of Michigan, Los Angeles Pierce College, Georgia Gwinnett College, and the University of California, Berkeley (Mangan 2019b).

At times, the potential for volatile demonstrations has led colleges and universities to cancel speaker appearances at the last minute. Part of the ongoing dilemma campus leaders face lies in the need to balance engagement of different parties in constructive debate with the safety and protection of all concerned. How, then, can academic leaders create engagement in civil discourse on contested issues and promote dialogue without creating hostile environments? And how does free speech conducted in a civil and nonthreatening manner promote the interests of a democratic society and student learning regarding social justice?

To address these perplexing questions, take, for example, Middlebury College’s last-minute cancellation of a planned public event featuring Ryszard Legutko, a right-wing Polish politician who had expressed antigay views. Middlebury indicates that its concerns escalated as estimates of attendance increased to more than 500 and the potential for demonstrations increased. Legutko, a professor of philosophy at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, had been invited by the Alexander Hamilton Forum and was apparently still in his hotel room when the cancellation occurred. Matthew Dickinson, a tenured political science professor at Middlebury, learned of the cancellation from his students at 1:30 p.m. Not wanting to make any students uncomfortable, he took a secret poll to see whether his students wanted to invite Legutko to their class, and they voted in favor of it. While waiting for Legutko to arrive, students formulated questions and researched issues. Dozens of other students soon entered the classroom to join the discussion, and their interactions with Legutko were livestreamed on Facebook. Dickinson viewed the dialogue as “a teaching moment,” describing the encounter as “one of the best teaching experiences I’ve had” (Mangan 2019a).

Recall how Middlebury had previously experienced the painful racial divide that is currently bifurcating American society. In 2017, a student group called the American Enterprise Institute Club sponsored a lecture by Charles Murray. Murray is coauthor of the controversial The Bell Curve, which attempts to link social and economic inequality and IQ test scores to genetic differences. The lecture was shut down amid disruption by student activists. Protesters climbed on and rocked the car in which Murray and Professor Allison Stanger, the faculty facilitator and a liberal professor, were seated. After recovering from whiplash and a concussion she experienced when shoved by protesters in the incident, Stanger (2017) reflected: “I hear and understand the righteous anger of many of those who shouted us down. I know that many students felt they were standing up to protect marginalized people who have been demeaned or even threatened under the guise of free speech.”

Given this controversial incident and the challenges it presented, the interactions with Ryszard Legutko at Middlebury illustrate the fragility of maintaining civil discourse on controversial issues. The discussion facilitated by Professor Dickinson underscores the delicate nature of interactions on contentious issues. Yet it also highlights the potential for students to experience cognitive dissonance when they encounter different and antithetical perspectives. As we point out in Rethinking Cultural Competence in Higher Education: An Ecological Framework for Student Development (Jossey-Bass, 2016), cognitive dissonance that results from encountering different views and perspectives can stimulate cognitive growth, especially during one’s undergraduate years. Individuals must attempt to reconcile new and often conflicting information with their existing views. The progressive process of addressing conflicting perspectives can lead to greater cognitive understanding and perceived opportunity as individuals themselves become change agents and innovators on the front lines of diversity and inclusion.

In walking the fine line between freedom of expression and protecting the interests of vulnerable students, when opportunities for engagement with diverse and even conflicting perspectives promote civil discourse, such discussions may enhance the process of student learning and civic participation. Although discomfort may result, as long as speakers do not engage in hateful or violent speech or harass or silence individuals or groups, the cognitive dissonance arising from sharply different perspectives can generate deep reflection that ultimately enriches the educational experience. While seemingly counterintuitive, the iterative process of engagement and civil dialogue may actually increase the potential for realizing an inclusive educational environment in support of social justice. 

Edna B. Chun, DM, and Alvin Evans are award-winning authors, each with more than two decades of experience in higher education. Chun is chief learning officer and Evans is higher education practice leader for HigherEd Talent, a national HR and diversity consulting firm.


American Civil Liberties Union. n.d. “Speech on Campus.” Accessed April 24, 2019.

American Association of University Professors. 1992. “On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes.”

Mangan, Katherine. 2019a. “Controversial Speaker, His Event Canceled by Middlebury College, Finds an Audience in a Campus Seminar.” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 15, 2019.

Mangan, Katherine. 2019b. “If There Is a Free-Speech ‘Crisis’ on Campus, PEN American Says, Lawmakers Are Making It Worse.” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 24, 2019.

PEN America. 2019. Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America.

Stanger, Allison. 2017. “Understanding the Angry Mob at Middlebury That Gave Me a Concussion.” New York Times, March 13, 2017.