For its monthly Faculty Network interview, FIRE spoke with 2020-2021 Center Fellow Jennifer Lambe. Jennifer is an associate professor in the Communication Department at the University of Delaware, with a joint appointment in UD’s Legal Studies minor and a founding faculty member of UD’s Center for Political Communication and the director of its Initiative on Free and Responsible Expression. You can read the full interview below.

FIRE: Briefly, could you tell readers about your teaching and research interests? 

Lambe: My research and teaching focuses on freedom of expression, media, and democracy and links four primary strands of research: understanding the complexity of public attitudes about censorship; the tensions between hate speech and free speech; examining public opinion about current policy issues involving free expression; and media effects. I incorporate insights from law, policy & ethics with concepts from media effects and quantitative methodologies and this combination informs my research.

You were recently selected as one of next year’s fellows by the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. Could you talk a little bit about the research you’ll be pursuing during your fellowship, and the impact you’re hoping it makes?

The goal of my fellowship project is to compile and evaluate strategies used by chief diversity officers at Universities and Colleges to navigate the tensions between diversity and free expression. The strongest ideas will be compiled into a manual of best practices, including topics for co-curricular programming explicitly considering their intersection.

How would you place this project in the context of your overall body of research on speech and expression issues?

The fellowship project is designed to provide practical advice and ideas to people, especially chief diversity officers, trying to navigate the tensions between free speech and hate speech on college campuses. It is my firm belief that most proposed regulation of hate speech in the United States violates the First Amendment, but also it isn’t/wouldn’t be terribly effective at addressing harms that people are concerned about. It is important to provide students (and faculty and staff) with continuing opportunities to consider and discuss WHY freedom of expression is cherished, and other ways to react to real or perceived harms.

The last few years have seen a substantial increase in statistical research on campus free speech and colleges student attitudes on this issue, including by faculty who have undertaken to examine the climate at their own institutions. I’m curious to hear your thoughts as a social scientist on this overall trend, what motivated it, and how it might be harnessed for greater effectiveness.

Research about these issues seems to be a part of a larger cultural concern about higher education and the perceived silencing of controversial — especially conservative — voices.  Because colleges and universities are supposed to be beacons of free expression, there is understandable concern when college students report that other values are more important to them. However, I have a lot of issues with much of the research on this topic. The idea that any type of limitation on expression is evidence of a failure to support free expression is specious.  The First Amendment is not absolute; it is necessary to be more precise in measurement. Also, most of these studies are cross-sectional with only current college students in the sample.  There is no way to compare whether current students are more or less censorious than students in past generations. Even if it is unique to this current group, what about non-college attending people the same age? I would also like to see studies on how presenting college students’ free expression attitudes as a dire problem affects their free expression attitudes. More nuance is needed. My past research suggests people engage in ad hoc balancing of free expression and other values and goals. I would like to see the goal for free expression support to be equivalent to the Supreme Court’s preferred position balancing rather than an unrealistic absolutist standard.

In addition to your research, you’ve also helped coordinate programming on free speech issues at your institution. For faculty interested in getting more involved on their own campuses, are there any tips you’d provide based on what you’ve found particularly effective (or not)?

A few things that have worked for me:

  1. Find partners on campus who are interested in free speech issues. This includes faculty from a variety of disciplines, but also administrators and librarians. A surprise to me has been the level of interest in these topics from staff in residence life and student life.
  2. Not to be crass, but seek out sources of funding. I have been fortunate to partner with the Vice Provost for Diversity at my University for the past 5 years, and that office has provided partial funding for nearly every event. This allows you to bring in speakers or create signage or other materials. But I have also asked my own and other departments to make a modest donation, as well as my dean’s office and other units on campus.
  3. Go beyond the basic talking-head panel. For example, instead of a general “hate speech vs. free speech” panel, do something about hate speech, content moderation, and the technology industry. Show a documentary about what happens when a satirist operates in a country without free expression (such as “Tickling Giants”) and lead a discussion afterwards.
  4. Schedule events around existing celebrations — Free Speech Week, World Press Freedom Day, Banned Book Week, and so on. Sometimes there are ready made graphics you can use for promotional purposes, which comes in handy. It also provides a “peg” for why you are holding the event and makes it more likely you’ll get media coverage.
  5. If you are programming primarily for students, Wednesday or Thursday nights are the best option for attracting a good-sized crowd.
  6. Have a way to allow other faculty to offer extra credit for student attendance at the event. We put out sign-in sheets for each class offering extra credit at the end of the event, so students put their names down as they are leaving.
  7. Find out the various ways for publicizing events on your campus. We submit to our university communication and marketing office, and submit the event for the campus calendar, but also reach out to interested faculty and departments directly, request student social media ambassadors to talk up the event, have a free PSA made at the campus radio station, and send press releases to the other campus media.

Related Resources

Fellows Program

Speech Spotlight Series

Resource Materials