Diversity and Democracy

Toward a Democratic Speech Environment

Committed acts of caring let all students know that the purpose of education is not to dominate, or prepare them to be dominators, but rather to create the conditions for freedom. Caring educators open the mind, allowing students to embrace a world of knowing that is always subject to change and challenge.

bell hooks,
Teaching Community
(2003, 92)

Around the country, college administrators and faculty are actively looking for ways to embrace or respond to a host of student demands related to defending undocumented students; challenging campus racism, sexism, and misogyny; and supporting social movements such as Black Lives Matter. Calls for change include a spectrum of proposals, from those addressing immediate conflict to those that would result in long-term structural reforms. Within and beyond higher education, many individuals have observed that conversation, debate, and critical engagement have become extremely difficult in the very spaces where these practices should be celebrated and protected. From its inception, liberal education has involved embracing difficult discussions as critical opportunities for student learning. But conversations that promote social justice have generally not been central to liberal education’s speech frameworks, with implications for the overall health of the campus community. This brief article represents our thinking about the possibilities for creating speech environments that promote social justice, stemming from our own attempts to advance democratic speech within a rapidly changing college context.

Now more than at any other time in recent history, it is important for campuses to become what we are calling Democratic Speech Environments (DSEs): sites of justice-seeking conversation and discourse. For too long, American higher education has protected a silent power that is based on racial, class, and gender privilege and compounded by institutional inertia. And yet, more marginalized students than ever before are attending college, including students from some of the country’s most economically depressed and racially segregated communities. When they arrive on campus, these students are not empty vessels into which we pour Foucault, Audre Lorde, and W. E. B. Du Bois. They already carry with them a variety of racial, class, and gender antagonisms drawn from their own first-hand experience.

Students expect that the campus will serve as a vital place for them to test out, wrestle with, and analyze the histories and experiences they carry, and hopefully arrive at a deeper sense of self or purpose. The liberal arts campus has never been the equitable or neutral space necessary to meet these expectations. We believe that the relationships and community-building practices students encounter, the active communication and conflict-transformation skills they acquire, and the structures of accountability that surround them can determine whether or not they exist and thrive in a healthy, intellectually challenging academic environment. Indeed, these factors can determine whether the college itself succeeds or fails in its mission to cultivate an informed, engaged citizenry.

Our conception of democratic speech emerges from a context in which a range of distinct yet related sociopolitical concerns are hotly discussed in spaces shared by a vast constituency. It also emerges from our thinking about the limitations of free speech. While free speech is a treasured concept in higher education and a hallmark of a constitutionally democratic society, it does not resolve everything. To be clear, we are not arguing that campuses should abandon free speech. But we are suggesting the need to move beyond an uncritical attachment to free speech as a salve for an assortment of difficult conversations, and to distinguish between free speech claims that promote justice and those that protect the right to any kind of speech at all, especially speech of the willfully uninformed or intentionally harmful variety.

College campuses are not immune from the entanglements of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. Our campuses are rare sites where these issues are interrogated in classrooms. They can also be places where these issues proliferate. Thus, the challenge facing us is that of identifying, deconstructing, and uprooting these issues and their intersections. A Democratic Speech Environment is predicated on the idea that social relationships reflect power dynamics that play out in society. In a campus environment shared by many, it is important not only to speak on behalf of oneself, but also to ask ourselves how we relate with and are accountable to others.

Characteristics of DSEs

Considering that different constituents across campus exchange, debate, and circulate competing ideas daily, our approach to democratic speech is guided by several basic related questions: Who gets heard and when? Who is always heard? Who is consistently left out? How do these patterns mirror power relationships in society? Democratic speech reframes claims to free speech by centering critical engagement across differences among individuals and within communities, opening space for conversations that promote justice, healing, and solidarity throughout the campus.

Building on the observation that campuses are already multidirectional speech environments, several elements that contribute to Democratic Speech Environments have emerged in our work:

1.  Willingness to Engage. Since the campus is a shared space, how we talk with and hold space for others is critical. Engagement requires deep listening and a willingness not only to be open to what others have to say, but also to allow oneself to be affected and moved by others’ words, perspectives, and experiences. Essentially, this means that whoever is listening experiences and demonstrates empathy toward the person speaking, takes them seriously, and listens intently. A willingness to engage is built on principles of deep listening, empathy, and solidarity, or what we call an ethics of care (Sevenhuijsen 1998).

2.  Getting and Staying Informed. Engaging in a difficult dialogue requires being informed. Speaking about an issue (from global or national politics to local campus conflicts) requires being educated about the issue. Students often ask what they should do to deepen their activism. We tell them that the first step is to be as informed as they can. This includes gaining an understanding of the histories of the issue that they are attempting to represent or build awareness around. 

3.  Commitment to Shared Understanding of Shared History. This aspect of crafting a Democratic Speech Environment encourages all community members to ask themselves, “How did we get here?” It includes a commitment to confronting longstanding structural impediments to safety and learning. It is not about promoting the common good at the expense of attempts to contend with deep, lingering tensions. Instead, it is about achieving a shared narrative through a series of questions: What issues need to be addressed? What demands have been made? And what structures of accountability can be used to answer those demands?

4.  Commitment to “Collective Courage.” Community justice scholar Jessica Nembhard (2014) originated this term; we use it here to refer to a concern for the general health and well-being of the community, requiring a willingness to challenge a status quo that promotes division, produces campus silos, and emphasizes individualism. Collective courage in dialogue requires that we actively listen, that we are present, that we give equal time to listening and speaking, and that we reflect on what is stated. Without this commitment, campuses will consistently fail to achieve a sense of collective purpose and community well-being.

Democratic speech is not about infringing on First Amendment rights to free speech or assembly. Instead, it aims to amplify and promote those rights throughout the campus community. Above all, it promotes the common good by centering the histories, yearnings, and desires of those in historically and locally marginalized communities and sectors of campus life.

Democratic Work on Campus

Thinking about how to apply and practice DSE approaches among students, faculty, staff, and administrators requires developing a shared vision of a healthier campus community. Below, we describe how DSE can apply to various sectors of campus life.

DSE in the Classroom—The classroom is a key site of democratic speech. There, students and professors engage in a give-and-take that results in shared knowledge. At its best, the classroom is where professors and students alike ensure that marginalized voices are heard, that no single student or small group of students dominates classroom discussion, and that quiet students are encouraged to speak up—all practices that open the classroom space to conversational resilience, which is connected to the willingness to engage. When these elements are central to the course, the opportunity for enhanced learning and deep engagement increases.

DSE among Faculty—Supporting democratic speech requires faculty to move past the idea that free speech claims alone will foster a shared sense of justice. It asks faculty to attend to the changing mechanisms by which students access information, to remain open and receptive to student concerns about curricular content, and to consider adjusting classroom norms to meet student needs (for example, by developing a set of shared agreements for classroom discussion, or by adding a reading that addresses an issue that students want to discuss but that is indirectly connected to course content). This approach can inspire students to take advantage of the classroom as a space of true knowledge production—a result that can be challenging to achieve as students are pulled in several directions at once by internships, interpersonal relationships, campus community-building activities, and jobs on and off campus. DSE among faculty requires a commitment to instructional practice based on inclusive learning, collective knowledge production, collegiality, and constant reflection and revision.

DSE among Students—DSE cultivation can play a particularly vital role among students. Practicing democratic speech requires students to move away from shaming and condemning others toward embracing where others may be coming from; it requires a willingness to show, teach, and model without judgment. It asks that students stay open to opportunities for growth and self-reflection, learn from their mistakes, and deepen their commitments. When challenges emerge, it asks that students exercise patience and remember that difficulties are a fraction of the whole, not the whole itself. This empathic approach requires students to exercise patience with their cohort, roommates, and classroom colleagues and encourage others on the path toward an ethic of solidarity. But it also requires that students who are less informed on the issues at hand commit themselves to deep study of those issues. This ideal of democratic speech among students can be hard to achieve in a charged climate in which the stakes for various individuals may differ greatly.

DSE among Staff—Staff are often less empowered than faculty and students to vocalize their ideas about campus life. Their work may be seen as separate from the academic side of the campus; they may be discouraged from attending lectures or workshops, or from cultivating relationships outside of their units. While many of these limitations may be due to their work schedules, the result is a compartmentalized campus environment. Therefore, efforts should be made to invite and include staff members in all areas of campus life.

DSE among Administrators—At the administrative level, embracing democratic speech means taking students’ claims seriously, developing an informed analysis of institutional structures in need of revision, reaching out to the broader campus community for insight and perspective, and acknowledging the earnestness of students’ demands and requests. Above all, the deliberation and evaluation process, as well as the decisions resulting from that process, should be transparent.

Examples at Hampshire

Much of the work and perspective that we describe here is already taking place within many sectors of the campus community we inhabit. Our thinking about democratic speech comes out of our work with Speaking Across Resilient Communities (SPARC), a presidential advisory council that convened at Hampshire to connect sectors across campus and to deepen the campus community’s shared understanding of the challenges we face around issues of communication, conflict, and difference. SPARC sought to identify strategies to enhance our community’s capacity to engage with and transform these challenges.

The council was composed of students, staff, and faculty who met regularly throughout the 2016–­17 academic year. Council members were invited based on their work, teaching, and willingness to share and develop interpersonal communication strategies that could be beneficial to the broader campus community. As cochairs we were selective in extending membership invitations. We wanted to create a diverse group that represented the entire campus community but consisted of individuals who were interested in and known for collaborative work in their respective sectors or fields. Most of all, we sought individuals who were open-minded and who shared a concern for building bridges of communication across the campus. Early on, we realized that we needed to engage the various sectors of our community in our conversations. To accomplish this, we met with faculty from four of the college’s five interdisciplinary schools, student residence advisors, and students in three different courses whose instructors or students requested our attendance. SPARC council members also attended an all-staff meeting.

Before introducing our concept of DSE to each group, council members began by asking participants:

  • How are issues of communication and conflict showing up in your work?
  • What resources and supports do you lean on when these issues arise?
  • What resources and supports do we need to shift and transform the culture around these issues?

The conversations generated by these questions gave us a more nuanced understanding of how issues related to conflict and communication play out on our campus and informed our recommendations for moving forward. Because we thought it was important to ground our recommendations in practice, we developed several workshops on communication, conflict resolution, community care, and facilitation and offered them to students, staff, and faculty. This approach created a space where we could test our ideas about what conversational techniques and critical understandings would be useful in cultivating a less contentious campus environment.  


In essence, creating Democratic Speech Environments is about encouraging conversation that challenges the exploitation of workers, staff, faculty, and students. Where these practices are successful, they should be expanded; where they are not currently available, they could be instrumental in shaping healthy and vital, rather than toxic and indifferent, campus climates. The DSE approach embraces dialogue that promotes restoration, rejuvenation, and resilience, especially during moments of crisis. Ultimately, however, DSE alone can only go so far. Institutional structures that support social justice and hold members of the campus community accountable are essential to effecting change—especially when our authority, power, and prestige as institutions and as individuals are challenged. A commitment to critically inclusive dialogue and conversation that supports justice will determine the relevance of a twenty-first-century liberal education, and may position our colleges and universities as the staging grounds for our national discourse.


hooks, bell. 2003. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge.

Nembhard, Jessica. 2014. Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Thought and Practice. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.

Sevenhuijsen, Selma. 1998. Citizenship and the Ethics of Care: Feminist Considerations on Justice, Morality, and Politics. New York: Routledge.

Christopher M. Tinson is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History in the School of Critical Social Inquiry at Hampshire College and Javiera Benavente is Program Director of the Ethics and the Common Good Project at Hampshire College.

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