"The arguments in favor of free speech are even more important at colleges and universities, which are predicated on the creation of new knowledge," says UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman. Steve Zylius / UCI

Focus on free speech

Chancellor Gillman’s new book provides important guidance on the contentious campus topic

Free speech issues continue to cause conflict at colleges nationwide, and to advance dialogue about this hot topic, UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman and former law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky have written Free Speech on Campus, being published this month by Yale University Press.

Both Gillman and Chemerinsky are leading constitutional scholars widely known for their reasoned analysis and advocacy of free speech. In fact, the chancellor’s 2016 statement on free speech and academic freedom is at the root of a recent California Assembly concurrent resolution urging all state colleges and universities to adopt free speech statements consistent with the principles articulated by Gillman.

Here, he discusses Free Speech on Campus.

Q: Why did you and Dean Chemerinsky write this book?

A: For the past few years, hardly a week has gone by without new controversies about free speech on campuses. All too often, the nature of the debate left much to be desired, with one side being too dismissive of student concerns about the effects of harmful speech and the other side being too dismissive of the value of free speech and academic freedom. After teaching an undergraduate seminar on the subject, we felt that we might be able to make some helpful contributions and provide important guidance to campus leaders who have been struggling with the dilemma.

Q: Why is free speech at universities so important? And why is it so controversial?

A: Free speech is a cornerstone of all free societies and is a necessary precondition for freedom of thought and democratic self-government. Moreover, the opposite of free speech – government censorship and control of ideas – has always proved disastrous. The arguments in favor of free speech are even more important at colleges and universities, which are predicated on the creation of new knowledge and which cannot perform their mission unless they are places where all ideas can be expressed, especially those that reflect dissenting views or that challenge sacred dogmas. Still, free speech is controversial because, in almost every case, it is debated only when unpopular, offensive or potential harmful ideas are being vocalized. After all, there is no need for free speech rights for those expressing popular ideas. And history has taught that there is no natural instinct – anywhere – to protect the speech of those we despise.

Q: How has the free speech environment changed on campuses since the ’60s and ’70s?

A: In the ’60s and ’70s, it was students who were insisting on broader free speech rights against administrators who were trying to limit what could be said on campuses. Today the impulse for censorship is coming largely from students. This generation has been demonstrating an admirable concern about the emotional and psychological well-being of their peers. They have also grown up knowing about the harm caused by dismissive or hateful speech, especially as magnified by social media. Colleges and universities are more diverse than they were decades ago, and so there are more individuals who can speak firsthand about the harm of hate speech. But importantly, the free speech battles of the mid-20th century are ancient history to them, and they have very little exposure to the history of free speech, the major arguments in favor of protecting speech rights, and the tremendously positive social impact that occurred when broader speech rights were extended in the political system.

Q: What can universities do to accommodate passionate voices representing myriad points of view?

A: Administrators must make it clear that they are absolutely committed to creating inclusive and nondiscriminatory learning environments for students. At the same time, they must also ensure that campuses are places where all ideas can be expressed. Both students and campus leaders can benefit from more exposure to the basic rationale for free speech and academic freedom, and then campus leaders should regularly explain to their communities why these principles are at the core of the mission of colleges and universities. Ultimately, it is not enough that leaders choose not to censor or punish the expression of ideas; more generally, campuses must nurture a culture that values the expression of views that might be silenced in society.

Q: How might the events in Charlottesville influence free speech activities on campuses?

A: Charlottesville raises two issues. One is whether white nationalists have a right to voice their views in society and on campuses, without censorship or punishment for merely expressing those views. The answer is clear: Principles of free speech protect that right, and campuses should be places where those views are heard, engaged and rebutted. Two years ago, many people had not even heard the term “alt-right” and very few campuses were organizing teaching and research around this very important national and global phenomenon. But Charlottesville also raises the separate issue of public safety, and here campuses must be free to use all legal means to ensure the safety of their communities. Campuses are supposed to be battlegrounds for the exchange of ideas, not actual battlegrounds.

Q: What type of feedback have you been receiving about the book?

A: We’ve been grateful for the initial responses, including suggestions by the leaders of some of the major organizations of higher education that the book provide perspectives that could be very helpful to students and administrators. We certainly did not want to write another polemic; we wanted to make a case and then provide very specific guidance about how to address many of the circumstances that have arisen in the past few years. At the same time, we are at a moment when support for free speech values, especially among students, is at a very low ebb, and we expect our arguments to be engaged and debated. We will not convince everyone, but we hope the resulting conversation creates more understanding and constructive discussion than would have been the case if we had not written the book.

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