In 2022, the Knight Foundation conducted a survey on attitudes about free speech among college students. Overall, 65 percent of students agreed that “the climate at their school or on their campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find it offensive.” At the same time, approximately 1 in 5 students reported feeling unsafe because of something said on campus in reference to their race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
It’s no secret that more than 230 years after the First Amendment was ratified, it’s looking a little frayed around the edges. From both sides of the political spectrum – think book-banning efforts from the right, speaker-canceling protests from the left and classroom-policing behaviors on all sides – the social space for spirited dialogue and debate has been steadily shrinking for years.
“Unfortunately, right now the discussion is not about how we can have open discussion while respecting everyone,” says Michael Dickson, professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s about whether we even allow open discussion.”
Along with social work professor Maryah Fram and others on campus, Dickson is taking
a stand in support of free speech, arguing that it can and should co-exist with respect
and fair treatment for all members of the campus community. Together, he and approximately
15-20 other faculty and staff members have launched a Heterodox Academy Campus Community
at the University of South Carolina. Known as HxA, the organization is based in New
York City and advocates for “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement
to improve higher education and academic research.”
The group will present its first public event on Sept. 14 at 4:30 p.m. in Harper College, Room 320. It will be a panel discussion for faculty and staff on free speech, academic freedom and the Carolinian Creed. The panel includes Tommy Crocker, constitutional law professor; Julian Williams, VP of access, civil rights and community engagement; Carol Harrison, history professor; and Steve Lynn, dean of the Honors College. Dickson will moderate.
We have to learn how to have open discussions in a manner that remains respectful even when we disagree.
— Michael Dickson, philosophy professor
For Dickson, the issue begins in the classroom. He sees some faculty members self-censoring for fear of offending students and others called out for perceived offenses.
“I have grown increasingly concerned over the last five years or so,” Dickson says. “Faculty around the country – not at this institution – have been silenced in a variety of ways. And most of the time, I don’t actually agree with the things that they say that get them in trouble. But there seems to me to be cases where faculty – in good conscience and in a good faith attempt to do their jobs – are getting censored in various ways.”
It’s a balancing act that institutions everywhere are trying to address – how to foster free and open discussion in the classroom while also protecting vulnerable populations.
Dickson is the first to admit that there could be controversy around HxA. There’s a fear among some people, he says, that “free speech” can be used to gain protection for racist or homophobic comments. His hopes and goals, however, are quite different.
“There is a suspicion that people who are advocating for open discussion or viewpoint diversity are insensitive somehow to the concerns of various minority communities,” he says. “But for most of us, the real locus of disagreement is, ‘What constitutes genuine respect for people?’ ‘What is the best way to create a safe and inclusive environment?’ I’m biased here: I think that having a safe and inclusive environment, being respectful of all persons, is compatible with having open discussion. I mean, we have to learn how to have open discussions in a manner that remains respectful even when we disagree.”
On Sept. 14, Dickson and the panel participants will do their best to move that conversation forward.