CASE STUDY: Students Debate Freedom of Speech on Campus
Updated: Sep 16, 2021
Plaetos gives a university a safe, moderated place for students to debate the extent and limits on freedom of speech on campus. Including students' views this way gave the university valuable feedback on how to draft a new, stronger Student Code of Conduct.
A prominent university was embroiled in political controversy as high profile clashes erupted in the media about the freedom to hold “unpopular” ideas on campus. Debate and the contest of ideas is core to a university’s reason for being, but the university wanted to ensure that all students’ voices on the passionate issue of ‘right to protest’ were being heard. The impetus was a timely review of their Student Code of Conduct, and a desire for the code to be more student-centric than it was, so that it could provide a framework for the university and its students to uphold its principles. Specifically, they needed to find out what students thought about how to conduct intellectual debate and criticism ethically.
More than 9,000 students were invited to participate in an anonymous, private, de-identified online discussion on Plaetos. Its purpose was to dive deep into student experiences and views on the current code of conduct, and solicit proposals for the formation of a new code. The forum was co-moderated by a university faculty member and an independent Plaetos moderator. Forum conversations led discussions on:
What acting with integrity meant to them;
What makes a positive learning culture, and;
How well the current code of conduct supported open discussion.
Aside from the powerful signal sent to students that the university supported debate about contentious issues, the university gave students who might not otherwise have participated in a physical debate a say in where the limits of freedom and other code tenets might begin and end. The Plaetos forum gave students the opportunity to have all their voices heard equally. It unearthed candid responses like:
“The purpose of a university is not to make its members feel secure, or good about themselves, but to provide a forum for the new, the provocative, the unorthodox - all of which can be offensive to many. I don’t think university is (or should attempt to be) a political, paternalistic or therapeutic institution. It’s not a club to promote harmony and civility - important as those values are. It should be a place where the unthinkable can be thought, the unmentionable can be discussed, and the unchallengeable can be challenged.” —Anonymous Plaetos Forum Participant
The issues students talked about ranged from the abstract of acting and being seen to lead with integrity, to the minute, such as bad behaviour in libraries and shared spaces. While there was much debate and disagreement, there was a very strong view expressed across all student demographics that the university must uphold academic excellence above all things, including freedom of speech and commercial imperatives. Topics covered were:
Whether academic freedom should be limited, and whether it transcended the responsibility not to offend;
Challenges that the commercial model for universities posed for academic freedom;
Some participants identified a clear line not be crossed: Respect, not causing offence, and not making personal attacks are to be sacrosanct;
Whether the university should step right back from the freedom of speech issue, or that the university had a critical role in encouraging respectful debate, and
Tighter wording in the code to deal with challenges and inequities in students’ group work.
The nature of the Plaetos platform mean that students were also able to propose solutions to the issues discussed, which meant university was able to draft the new Student Code of Conduct to reflect the feedback.
It was made stronger by their inclusion.