They walk the line: Administrators balance tolerance and the First Amendment

'In the US, it is not a crime to be a racist moron'

University and college administrators must navigate the complicated space between preventing racial discrimination and protecting free speech on campus, Nick Anderson and Susan Svrluga write in the Washington Post.

In recent weeks, a slew of protests spread across higher education institutions nationwide as students demand more efforts to stem racial bias and offenses—be they overt or subtle.

"Universities are struggling to strike a balance as they seek to foster a climate that is at once tolerant of racial and cultural differences but also unafraid of a robust clash of viewpoints," Anderson and Svrluga write.

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Leaders of these institutions must both create a hospitable environment for students while also fostering the exchange of ideas.

"A lot of ideas can be very unwelcoming. How you handle those is something that a lot of people worry about," says Terry Hartle, SVP of the American Council on Education.

While some critics say the outrage over "micro-aggressions" and seemingly small acts of bias is unwarranted and a sign society is becoming too politically correct, others argue it shows students' pent-up frustrations.

"It is cumulative," says Derald Wing Sue, a psychology and education professor at Columbia University's Teachers College. Anything can serve as "the match, the spark, that creates the explosion" after "years of being discriminated against, being fatigued, and tired of having to take it."

On Tuesday, officials at Yale University addressed the issue in a statement that reaffirmed the school's commitment to the "freedom to speak and be heard, without fear of intimidation, threats, or harm, and we renew our commitment ... not as a special exception for unpopular or controversial ideas but for them especially."

And while many academics support the protests taking place, some also say they worry the outrage jeopardizes freedom of expression—and freedom to make mistakes.

"In the U.S., it is not a crime to be a racist moron. So the university cannot punish students simply for being bigoted," says Ben Trachtenberg, University of Missouri associate law professor who says there are racial issues on campus. "So it does create some tension when people say things that are both entitled to First Amendment protection and extremely hurtful. The line between mere bigotry and actual harassment and threats is not always obvious" (Anderson/Svrluga, Washington Post, 11/10).

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