The First Amendment, academic freedom and free speech were the menu over lunchtime on Oct. 5, when the UCI’s Year of Free Speech Kickoff Event encouraged the UCI community to seek opportunities to engage in thoughtful discussions throughout the year to better understand the concepts and create space for meaningful dialogue.
“I have learned that the meaning of free speech and academic freedom is not self-evident to most people,” said UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman, who is a scholar on the topic. “It’s no one’s fault that there is a lack of basic understanding, because these values are not intuitive. They must be taught and reflected on, discussed and debated – not just by experts, but by the entire university community, since we all have an obligation to create and maintain the norms and values that are central to our mission.”
The bulk of the event was a panel moderated by Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Willie Banks and included discussion among Jun Jang, president of the Associated Students of UCI, Tiffany Lopez, dean of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, and Megan Enciso, director of student affairs at the Sue and Bill Gross School of Nursing. Banks asked them each three questions:
“Why is free speech expression important to you?”
Jang shared that free speech governs how we can express ourselves, from day-to-day interactions to how we protest and demonstrate.
“Students will always be tied to the free speech movement,” he said. “It began at Berkeley, so UC has always been at the forefront.”
Lopez said that, “creative expression is the lighthouse of everything we do at Claire Trevor. Artmaking gives us the space to process what’s going on.”
To support the notion that universities bring free speech into the community, she shared how UCI does that through the hundreds of events produced each year that share multiple perspectives of stories, which teaches more than one way to live in the world.
Enciso remarked that the diversity of thought and opinion that comes with higher education is critical.
“As a staffer, I interact with both students and faculty and learned that we must recognize our own privilege or authority in some spaces so that other people can feel like they can speak up. We can open the space to others to feel safe to say what they want to say.”
The second question allowed each speaker to address how their individual personal experiences shaped their views on expression and free speech. Lopez shared her experience as a first-generation student and how college and through art, she found a space for vision and voice. Enciso spoke about the many layers of each person’s identity and how we present multiple identities to the world, stressing to be aware of the identities we bring to the table so that others can feel welcome to speak up. Jang promoted the UCI’s Asian American Studies Department for helping students define their voice, noting that freedom of speech historically hasn’t been the same for everyone.
The third question asked the panel what they hope to see from the Year of Free Speech. There was agreement that a foundational understanding of free speech and academic freedom through educational opportunities is essential and that creating spaces for productive dialogue will be critical to accomplishing this.
The event ended with a presentation from Michelle Deutchman, executive director of the UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, who addressed the legal component of free speech, stressing that the human component plus the law and how those work together makes free speech complex and challenging.
Deutchman’s presentation engaged with viewers via live polls throughout asking questions such as, “what freedoms are protected by the first amendment?” and “who has ever participated in a protest?”
She addressed hate speech, how freedom of speech and academic freedom differ and how protected speech is regulated through various types of forums.
The event culminated with a lively exchange between Deutchman and Gillman addressing some of the questions that were submitted by viewers in advance, such as putting up items in dorm windows, whether malls are public forums, addressing whether professors can dock points if a student does not agree with the professor’s viewpoint, and incitement to violence or illegal activity.
The sentiment of the kickoff event was summed up by a quote from former UC President Clark Kerr: “The university is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas.”
If you want to learn more about supporting this or other activities at UCI, please visit the Brilliant Future website at https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu. Publicly launched on Oct. 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UCI seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more.