Balancing Free Expression, Academic Freedom, and a Safe Educational Environment

By Larry Galizio, Ph.D. 
Community College League of California

During the Free Speech in Focus Workshop on Friday, September 22nd at Pasadena City College, I had the honor of participating in a panel discussion alongside Cal State Fullerton Political Science Professor, Jodi Balma; Dr. Earic Dixon-Peters, Vice President of Student Services at Pierce College; Attorney Sharon Ormond from Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo; and Peter Eliasburg, Chief Counsel for the ACLU of Southern California.

Seven key conclusions emerged from our discussion regarding free speech at California’s Community Colleges. CEOs, Trustees, faculty, staff and community college administrators should keep in mind these best practices:

  • Make sure your policies and administrative procedures are prominently placed and updated as needed. The League’s Policies & Procedures service provides legally-vetted policy and administrative procedure templates complete with Education Code and accreditation citations;
  • Consult legal counsel should you have particular questions concerning time, place, and manner restrictions and related issues;
  • Proactively communicate institutional values of equity, inclusion, and foster an educational environment conducive to inquiry and academic excellence;
  • Have safety and contingency plans for demonstrations and in- and out-of-class incidents;
  • Maintain communication with local law enforcement and alert them to events that may lead to disruption or violence;
  • Have clear policies and procedures in place concerning institutional and college-related social media communication;
  • Recognize that risk and liability can be mitigated yet not eliminated.

The challenge of balancing free expression and academic freedom with a safe campus and classroom learning environment has existed since colleges and universities in the U.S. opened their doors in the 17th century. Yet each generation of institutional leaders confronts challenges and opportunities unique to the prevailing political, economic, and socio-cultural environment. One need look no further than my undergraduate alma mater, UC Berkeley, for evidence of this truism.

Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement of the 1960s and the University’s attempt to ban and/or severely limit expression on campus, pit students-activists and faculty against the Administration and a state government led by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. Almost 60 years later the university—at the forefront of student activism and free expression—finds itself embroiled in a much different environment as publicity-seeking provocateurs create conditions leading to violence and property destruction on and near famed Sproul Plaza.

Regardless of one’s political view of these issues, from the perspective of a Trustee or CEO, such incidents and events necessitate institutional planning, forethought, and resources (typically in very limited supply), to maintain campus safety and security, and to protect the institution from damaging legal action.

Of course, social media as we now know it wasn’t available to Mario Savio and those protesting university policies, the Vietnam War, and Civil Rights in the 1960s. The rapidity and omnipresence of social media outlets has created an additional set of issues and challenges for campus leadership to consider.

Although the panel session stimulated more questions than answers (and a recognition of the fragility of campus safety and security), there was little uncertainty concerning the need for all of California’s Community Colleges to proactively and vigilantly act and plan for the multitude of contingencies surrounding free expression on campus.