2024 Commencement Address by Stephen S. Dunham

Free Speech: Dialogue, Democracy, and Community

Stephen Dunham

I believe that freedom of speech – the right of individuals to express their individual viewpoints no matter how unpopular — is necessary for constructive dialogue and constructive dialogue is in turn necessary for the peaceful resolution of the conflicts we face.

For myself and the entire Board of Trustees, we offer our congratulations to the graduates of the great Class of 2024. Based on your hard work and perseverance, you earned and deserve the degrees Soka University of America bestows on you today. We are here to celebrate each of you.

I would also like to congratulate the families and friends who encouraged the graduates to dream big and aim high and supported them in all of their efforts. And I commend the faculty and staff of SUA for everything you have done and do for the students and the university.

Finally, I would like to thank President Feasel and the university for giving me the honor and the privilege of speaking to you today.

The subject of my talk is drawn from today’s headlines. First, how do principles of freedom of speech apply to the current and ongoing conflicts and disruptions on college campuses in the U.S. and indeed around the world? By freedom of speech, I mean constitutional and policy-based principles that protect the free expression of information and ideas from interference by the government. In the United States, that means the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and related institutional policies. Second, how can constructive dialogue when combined with freedom of speech help resolve conflicts?

To state my conclusion at the outset, I believe that freedom of speech – the right of individuals to express their individual viewpoints no matter how unpopular — is necessary for constructive dialogue and constructive dialogue is in turn necessary for the peaceful resolution of the conflicts we face.

This topic is at the very least timely. The current free speech issues on college campuses arise most prominently in the context of demonstrations over the war between Israel and Hamas following the attack of Oct. 7. They involve issues of war, peace, discrimination, and statehood affecting both Jewish and Palestinian people. These issues are part of the cancellations of graduation and graduation speakers at several campuses. They are part of the forced resignation of prominent university presidents. They are raised by the arrests and suspension of hundreds of protesters on campuses across the country, including students, faculty, and others and the building and removing of tent cities and occupying buildings.

Similarly but separately, over the past several years on many college campuses, there have been protests relating to issues of race and discrimination that also raise questions of freedom of speech.

The underlying global conflicts that give rise to the campus protests are of course of immense interest and importance, and it is my hope and belief that the issues I will talk about today may be helpful in resolving such conflicts. But for purposes of my talk today, I seek to focus more on how principles of freedom of speech and dialogue apply to and can help resolve conflicts on college campuses.

I begin with a brief background on how I have been involved in these issues. I will also provide a short overview of my involvement with the founding of SUA in the hope that my story will underscore how SUA’s unique mission relates to freedom of speech, dialogue, and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

I went to college and law school in the 1960s during a time of social and political unrest on college campuses. As with today, there were two overriding conflicts that triggered the unrest: Vietnam and civil rights. Student protests pushed the envelope on issues of freedom of speech on campus, up to and including civil disobedience and violations of university policies. My very conservative constitutional law professor told us that the far left and the far right should agree on the First Amendment because they have the same interest in protecting controversial speech from governmental and university overreach.

In the 1980s, students at many universities, including the one where I worked, argued that because of apartheid, the universities should sell their stocks in companies that did business in South Africa. This is directly analogous to the demands today by students on many campuses that university endowments should divest from investments linked to Israel or military activities. As is true today, the students disrupted board meetings. They took over the presidents’ offices. They argued that the First Amendment protected their activities.

More recently, Richard Spencer, who had reportedly helped organize the white nationalist march in Charlottesville in 2017, asked to speak at several universities shortly after the march. When he did speak, there were protests and counter-protests. When certain public universities denied his requests to speak, he sued based on the First Amendment.

Moving from historical examples to my involvement with Soka University of America, beginning in 1992 I was asked by SUA to advise on a series of legal issues related to its founding. An early assignment was to help obtain approval from the state of California and accrediting bodies so that SUA could award degrees and your predecessors could graduate from an approved and accredited university. To do that we needed to define and describe SUA’s mission. SUA’s founder Daisaku Ikeda had set forth a mission for SUA in his writings and speeches – really in his entire life’s work – that included leading a contributive life, global citizenship, peace, and dialogue. I believe that SUA’s unique mission and more broadly its mission as an institution of higher education, which encourages diversity of viewpoint and open discussion of conflicting positions, are supportive of the principles and purposes of freedom of speech and dialogue.

So why does freedom of speech matter and why should we protect it? First, freedom of speech is a way to find the truth. Probably the most famous statement of this idea comes from the English writer John Milton in a 1644 pamphlet objecting to laws that discouraged “learning.” As stated by Milton: “Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth so [that] truth be in the field we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worst in a free and open encounter?” In other words, using Milton’s analogy, truth would beat falsehood in a fair fight.

But why does truth matter? That is really a larger philosophical question, but for now I would simply say that truth matters because it is necessary for the exercise of wisdom and it protects us from false charges, bad science, and arbitrary decisions. It promotes health, safety, and human prosperity, which suffers from false information. And also relevant specifically for SUA, the educator Makiguchi stated that truth is necessary to create value, which is the basis both of Soka education and indeed the word Soka itself.

So truth matters, but why does truth win in a fight against falsehoods? Drawing from First Amendment law, as stated by Justices Holmes and Brandeis in a U.S. Supreme Court opinion in 1919, “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market” or what has come to be referred to as the “marketplace of ideas.” So the principles of a free market promote and support the truth-seeking purpose of freedom of speech.

A second reason why freedom of speech matters is that it encourages the free flow of information and viewpoints on matters of public interest and thus supports democratic self-government, which depends on an informed citizenry in voting for public officials.

Finally, freedom of speech protects individual freedom by protecting the rights of individuals to form their own opinions and develop their own identities. Freedom of speech thus protects individuality and diversity of identity and thought.

To bring the discussion back to the reality of the current conflicts on campus, how do the purposes of freedom of speech help guide us in the handling of the protests and demonstrations? Freedom of speech leads to the truth, and only when the truth is discovered and understood can participants act rationally and with wisdom to resolve the conflict. Freedom of speech protects individuality and identity, and only by respecting individuals and their differences can we make progress towards a resolution. Finally, democratic decision making depends on freedom of speech and is the best hope for a peaceful resolution that is supported by the opposing parties to a conflict.

That all sounds good but of course it is not that simple. Freedom of speech is a good thing, but there are competing interests. There are disputes about the truth, including whether there even is such a thing. Freedom of speech can cause harm, including to students and employees on college campuses. For example, First Amendment law protects “hate speech” and hate speech causes real harm to real people. Freedom of speech can lead to lawlessness, even violence. Freedom of speech can interfere with the operations of colleges and universities, including by interfering with learning.

Because of these and other countervailing interests, freedom of speech law under the First Amendment has developed exceptions, including that speech is not protected if it violates reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions; it is not protected if it is likely to cause imminent lawlessness, including violence; it is not protected if it constitutes actionable sexual or racial harassment; and it is not protected if it disrupts campus operations. Each of these exceptions deserves a book, but the point here is that applying freedom of speech principles to the current controversies on campus requires colleges to consider legal and policy-based principles that are ambiguous, uncertain, depend on the context and the facts, and are virtually always disputed.

In balancing the conflicting interests and considerations, what is the connective tissue between the conflicting viewpoints created and protected by freedom of speech and the actual resolution of the conflict? How do we bring people together?

In my view, that is where dialogue comes into play. What do we mean by dialogue? It is not a legal term and I offer no generally accepted definition. I am not sure there is one. Many words might describe something similar and offer some of the same benefits. Consider words such as mediation, compromise, engagement, discussion, sharing, negotiation, argument, persuasion, agreement, debate, mutuality, and others. I have selected dialogue for several reasons.

First, dialogue is an important theme of SUA’s founder Daisaku Ikeda’s writings and teachings, and dialogue plays an important part in SUA’s unique mission. Second, dialogue as a word and intellectual concept is supported by hundreds, indeed thousands of years of classical teaching and learning. Third, there is considerable literature about dialogue as a means of conflict resolution. Several members of SUA’s Board of Trustees, including Drs. Jason Goulah, Lawrence Carter, Andrea Bartoli, Lawrence Hickman, and others, have written and spoken about the role of dialogue. And finally, dialogue suggests respect between individuals with different backgrounds and viewpoints and some degree of respect is a useful if not necessary ingredient for a peaceful resolution of disputes.

But just as pure freedom of speech has conflicting interests and exceptions, so too are there situations where dialogue has limitations or may just not work. How do you talk with someone who has no interest in a peaceful resolution or is just flat out evil? How do you apply principles of dialogue to conflicting views that simply cannot be reconciled? In the parlance of the current international conflicts, should you negotiate with terrorists? These are extreme examples that in most instances should not prevent us from making good faith efforts at peaceful resolution, but practical and ethical limitations on the use of dialogue must at least be considered.

So back to the issue at hand. In the context of helping to resolve current conflicts on campus and more broadly conflicts in society, what are the core elements of dialogue and how do they intersect with principles of freedom of speech?

Dialogue draws on many sources including historical, religious, philosophical, political, and educational-based writings and practices. To understand its core principles, I begin with a quote from Peter Stearns, editor of a recent book entitled “Peacebuilding Through Dialogue.” “Dialogue,” Stearns writes, “is essential to effective communication” because “The need for voice and to listen to and interact with other voices is a central feature of our age whether the issue is conflict resolution or learning …” (p.9).

Daisaku Ikeda emphasizes that in airing different and conflicting opinions (Foreword p. ix) there must be “respect for the other and the humility to listen to and learn from perspectives different from one’s own.” Further, Mr. Ikeda has noted that by engaging with people with different backgrounds and viewpoints, we “cultivate our capacities for tolerance and understanding” and as a result we can “appreciate the pain and suffering of others, control our own anger, and patch up even small differences and misunderstandings …” (World Tribune Press, Santa Monica 2019, p. 61).

So how do we move from listening, respecting differences, and learning from the viewpoints of others to actually resolving the conflicts? That seems to me the heart of the matter.

SUA’s founder Ikeda speaks to this issue. He states that the “mutual understanding and solidarity arising from dialogue can triumph over the threats of evil.” (p. xi). And then specifically apropos to our topic today, Mr. Ikeda wrote about the role of universities and education in facilitating through dialogue the sharing of different perspectives leading to the peaceful resolution of disputes. In the founder’s words, “Education based on open dialogue is far more than the mere transfer of information and knowledge; it enables us to rise above the confines of our parochial perspectives and passions. Institutes of higher learning are charged with the task of encouraging Socratic world citizens and spearheading the search for new principles for the peaceful integration of the world.”

In freedom of speech terms, founder Ikeda called on universities to encourage “open” dialogue – i.e. no restrictions on opposing viewpoints - that goes beyond “parochial perspectives” - i.e. listen to and respect different opinions. In this way, we can develop “new principles” and “mutual understanding and solidarity” and “the peaceful integration of the world” — i.e. a resolution of the conflict.

Further on the role of universities, our own Dr. Andrea Bartoli, who is a trustee and also an advisor to SUA and is an experienced practitioner of dialogue in difficult international conflict resolution settings, has written that “The university setting provides the promise of a transformational setting through dialogue: It is a place where students, faculty, staff and also families and the general public may critically examine their worldviews. Universities can support dialogue and understanding as part of the public service mission.” (Stearns chapter, p. 201)

To sum up, I hope I have drawn a helpful connection between freedom of speech, dialogue, and conflict resolution, specifically in the context of the protests that are currently going on at colleges and universities that will at least give you something to think about. Recognizing that there are benefits but also limitations and challenges with both freedom of speech and dialogue, my personal belief is that colleges should apply an expansive view of freedom of speech and allow protests and demonstrations to the extent consistent with public safety; and they should engage in dialogue with protesters and others in a good faith attempt to reach a peaceful resolution. I do note that protesters and administrators on many campuses have in fact engaged in what might be called dialogue or negotiations and some appear to have resolved their campus-specific conflicts at least for now. I commend them and view that as a positive development. Of course, resolving the underlying global conflicts is much more difficult, but freedom of speech and dialogue can help there as well.

On that optimistic note, I would like to end with a request that you consider how you can contribute to supporting the related concepts of freedom of speech, dialogue, and conflict resolution on our campuses and in our communities.

Here is a short list of actions you may choose to consider:

  • Have a dialogue with yourself and engage with family and friends and in small groups on the substantive issues and conflicts of the day.
  • Consider whether to become involved in educational efforts in support of freedom of speech. I don’t think this is just for lawyers. In the United States, freedom of speech is a constitutional principle which is part of the rule of law, but I believe promoting the principles of freedom of speech supports democratic principles and the peaceful resolution of conflicts whatever country you come from and wherever you live.
  • Join organizations or attend public meetings, perhaps on a university campus, where you can hear the viewpoints of people you disagree with and seek lawful opportunities to dialogue with them. Participate in the marketplace of ideas. Exercise your freedom of speech rights. Celebrate diversity of viewpoint. Use dialogue for the peaceful resolution of disputes.

I hope I have not spoiled your graduation by handing out a homework assignment. And now let’s move to the main event. Thank you for your attention and again, congratulations to each and every one of you.