Skip to main content

Statement on Freedom of Expression

Steven C. Bahls, president of Augustana College

May 1, 20171

To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. — Frederick Douglass

The purpose of this paper is to set out my views with respect to freedom of expression at Augustana College. It is intended to provide guidance as to how the President’s Office will support free expression.

Though there are limits (discussed below), our commitment to free expression and critical discourse warrants protection of speech, even when it is offensive. I write today to share why as a community we must uphold the freedom to express our thoughts and ideas. I also ask your assistance in working together to protect the principles of free expression and to identify how we as a community might best define and respond to speech apparently intended not to convey an idea, but rather to be hurtful.

In so doing, I do not discount the pain that words can and do cause. Augustana is both a home to our students and a space for sharing ideas. Our core identity as a higher learning institution means we listen to opinions, comments, views, and ideas that may be highly controversial, challenge deeply rooted beliefs, and offend, even to the point of making us uncomfortable.

Augustana promotes a liberal arts education, meaning that we challenge members of our community to expand their horizons by broad exposure to multiple disciplines and competing ideas. At the same time we are tolerant and inclusive. Suppressing unwanted views is antithetical to these core values. In addition, silencing the expression of views that are in opposition to our own offers only the shallow benefit of not having to hear them; it does nothing to change the beliefs that lie beneath, and often only increases the conviction of people holding those beliefs. Even more dangerous is that engaging in a practice of silencing offensive speech establishes a practice that has historically been used against marginalized groups.

Developing the qualities of mind, spirit and body that will prepare students for life beyond Augustana requires challenges both in and outside the classroom. The free exchange of ideas and debate, perhaps most importantly on topics we find difficult, is a foundation of intellectual growth. Listening to other viewpoints and engaging in conversations provide an opportunity to deepen our understanding of ourselves, our core values and our beliefs. These conversations also provide important opportunities to understand how best to express our views and effectively challenge opposing views.

This protection of speech is not without limits on our campus. Freedom of expression is not unyoked from responsibility. The fact that you can express something doesn’t mean that you should. It is important that we encourage dialog that is respectful and consistent with our community principles of purpose, openness and respect, responsibility, and accountability. But it is also important that we protect speech that falls outside these principles, even though we may strongly condemn it.

As a community, we will confront issues where free expression principles appear to be in tension with other community interests. It has been suggested that Augustana College adopt a policy addressing hate speech to promote student’s sense of safety and belonging in our community. While I share in the desire to promote safety and a sense of belonging on campus, I am mindful of the cautionary tales in this area. Numerous hate speech policies have either been overturned by the courts, or voluntarily terminated by higher education institutions for failure to achieve the desired effect.

Within this context, then, we will use the following guidelines in addressing issues related to freedom of expression within and affecting the Augustana community:

  1. The PEN America Principles on Campus Speech provides the best guidance in dealing with the complex issues of free speech on campus. 
  2. The college prohibits incendiary communication that carries no meaningful content or message other than the incitement to hatred for some group, especially in circumstances in which the communication is likely to promote violence.
  3. The college will take action against behaviors that violate college policies, including the Social Code of Conduct. The college’s Policy against Discrimination & Harassment prohibits harassing conduct directed at an individual based on characteristics such as race, color, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, or any other classification protected by law. Harassing conduct can include derogatory gestures or comments regarding these protected characteristics. Threats of physical harm or the display or distribution of written or graphic material having such effects may also constitute harassment. Our Bias Response Team is intended to help respond to behaviors that may not rise to the level of harassment, but indicate a need for education and reflection.
  4. Because Augustana is a home, a place of higher learning and a forum for discussion of ideas, the college may impose time and space limitations on speech. Nevertheless, any such limitations, should provide the speaker ample opportunity for speech. For example, faculty may put limitations on expression to promote decorum and a healthy learning environment in the classroom. Also, the college may limit expression to protect the interests of minors (e.g. shielding minors from adult-themed expression). The college, as well, may take steps to protect against vandalism, breaches of the peace, other disruptions of the mission of the college, and attempts to disrupt the freedom of expression of others.
  5. The best response to offensive speech is more reasoned speech. Therefore, while continuing to advocate for freedom of expression and academic freedom on campus, college leaders may also publically condemn statements that are hateful and offensive. Helpful guidance can be found in the American Civil Liberties Union paper on Hate Speech on Campus:

Where racist, sexist and homophobic speech is concerned, the ACLU believes that more speech—not less—is the best revenge. This is particularly true at universities, whose mission is to facilitate learning through open debate and study, and to enlighten. Speech codes are not the way to go on campuses, where all views are entitled to be heard, explored, supported or refuted. Besides, when hate is out in the open, people can see the problem. Then they can organize effectively to counter bad attitudes, possibly change them, and forge solidarity against the forces of intolerance.

Further, the PEN Principles note it is sometimes the responsibility of the administration to speak out:

When a university’s values are breached, its precepts threatened, or its constituents violated in a significant way, it is incumbent on top administrators to speak out. If the offense came in the form of speech, it may be appropriate for them to condemn the message, even while defending the speaker’s right to express it.

  1. Academic freedom is closely related to free expression. Augustana’s Faculty Handbook cites the American Association of University Professors as follows: 

      A college or university is a marketplace of ideas and it cannot fulfill its purposes of transmitting, evaluating, and extending knowledge if it requires conformity with any orthodoxy of content and method. In the words of the United States Supreme Court, “Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.” [2]

  1. These principles and protections extend to all members of the Augustana community.

Some might wish that we catalog what is permitted and what is prohibited under item 2 above. To do so is impossible, because words and context cannot be separated. This paper, and the PEN Principles provide a starting point for our consideration.

Appendix A – Freedom of Expression and Welcome

In March 2016, I shared with the Augustana community my personal commitment to ensuring that Augustana is a place where all students have a similar sense of belonging, and where historically underrepresented groups are not only welcomed and respected, but also feel valued and cherished by our community. This statement included an invitation for others to join in this commitment.

The Board of Trustees modified the Augustana 2020 strategic plan in October 2016, reinforcing our commitment to cherish diversity, promote inclusion and be welcoming to all.

What does our commitment to diversity and inclusion mean to Augustana’s traditional and long-standing faithfulness to free expression? My March 2016 statement begins to address that question:

We must affirm and value our students’ efforts to address social justice issues, even when it makes us feel uncomfortable. We must encourage our students to be more active in bringing issues to light and developing strategies to address these issues. We must recognize that the passions of those in our community will sometimes conflict, but in that conflict we are challenged to find the truth. We must cherish free and respectful dialog and should not seek to silence those who challenge us.

In recent months, we’ve taken into account both our commitment to diversity and inclusion and our commitment to free speech. Examples of our actions have included:

  • Limiting the area on campus sidewalks where political slogans may be chalked without advance permission, but refusing to remove political slogans from the designated political chalking zone that offended members of our community.
  • Rejecting calls to discipline students who chose not to stand for the national anthem.
  • Refusing to make our campus available to a speaker with a reputation of urging violence against those with whom he disagrees.
  • Making the campus available to a speaker who offended some though the speech was not likely to include incitement to violence or hateful behaviors.
  • Declining to ban rap artists from campus who use coarse language, due to the artistic context to the music. [3]

Free speech, welcome and inclusivity are not mutually exclusive. In fact, each enhances the others.  Free speech gives those members of our community who are historically underrepresented or who may feel silenced a meaningful voice and a meaningful place at the table. At the same time, we, as a community, have an obligation to respond to those who use their free speech rights to shout down or attempt to intimidate others. The PEN Principles provide an excellent discussion of how to most effectively respond to speech that offends.

[1] Endorsed by the Augustana College Board of Trustees at its May 2017 meeting.

[2] From “Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” AAUP Policy Documents and Reports (American Association of University Professors: Washington, D.C., 1990) 21.

[3] Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II noted in Cohen v. California (1971), “one man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric.”