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Free Speech: Dialogue, Democracy and Community

Photo by Soka University of America.

by Stephen Dunham

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. …

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? … 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. …

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. …

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 [Tsunesaburo] Makiguchi stated that truth is necessary to create value, which is the basis both of Soka education and indeed the word Soka itself. …

A second reason … 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. …

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. …

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? … I have selected dialogue for several reasons.

First, dialogue is an important theme of SUA 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. … 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? …

Daisaku Ikeda emphasizes that in airing different and conflicting opinions there must be “respect for the other and the humility to listen to and learn from perspectives different from one’s own.”[1] 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.”[2]

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 founder Ikeda speaks to this issue. He states that the “mutual understanding and solidarity arising from dialogue can triumph over the threats of evil.”[3] 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.”[4]

In freedom of speech terms, founder Ikeda called on universities to encourage “open” dialogue. … 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. …

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.

June 14, 2024, World Tribune, p. 9


  1. Daisaku Ikeda, Foreword, Peter N. Stearns, Peacebuilding Through Dialogue: Education, Human Transformation, and Conflict Resolution, p. ix. ↩︎
  2. The Teachings for Victory, vol. 5, p. 61. ↩︎
  3. Daisaku Ikeda, Foreword, Peter N. Stearns, Peacebuilding Through Dialogue: Education, Human Transformation, and Conflict Resolution, p. xi. ↩︎
  4. For the Sake of Peace, p. 43. ↩︎

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