Mark G. Yudof, the former president of the University of California (UC) system, recently weighed in on the state of free speech on the American college campus today. Pointing to this year’s “disinvitation season,” Yudof rightly lamented the tendency of too many students to advocate for or condone the suppression of ideas that they consider offensive or abhorrent. This message is especially welcome coming from the former head of an enormous public university system and a former constitutional law professor.
Writing for The Jewish Daily Forward, Yudof recounted instances in which he had himself responded to speech he considered offensive in the right way: by criticizing it rather than seeking to censor it. Unfortunately, after doing so, he often encountered a backlash from students who claimed that the right to free speech should only be afforded to “marginalized” groups of people:
Along the way, I also denounced a number of attempts to silence speakers. … I later met with student leaders from a number of campuses, and they took me to task. They believed I failed to grasp that constitutional rights were for marginalized groups, not for the “privileged.” These students took it upon themselves to define privilege, and they made it clear that Jews were among the privileged. Not poor, not marginalized, not the object of empathy. No need to protect the free speech of Jews. Every reason to silence them, particularly Zionists. University officials, politicians and others with whom they disagree also were deemed unworthy of constitutional protection. The line between intolerance and definable privilege apparently is a blurred one.
Yudof mused that these students’ youthful energy and passion might very well be clouding their judgment:
The exuberance of youth may be part of the problem. If you think you are in the right on gun control or affirmative action or foreign policy or whatever, if you are passionate about making a better world, why should one tolerate the speech of the misguided troglodytes who oppose your point of view? At Haverford College, those opposing former chancellor Robert Birgeneau as a graduation speaker even sought to re-educate him and to seek a mea culpa from him — without affording him the opportunity to express his own point of view. … One can only express the hope that maturity will cause these people to embrace democratic values as ends in themselves.
Yudof closed by noting the key role that free expression and open dialogue play in a democratic society: “[I]t is not enough that those on campus be free to engage in protected activities such as peaceful demonstrations and oratory; they also should be open to genuinely diverse points of view. [...] Societies that lose the capacity for people to converse openly with one another, without fear or favor, in the end are doomed to an undemocratic future.”
It is heartening to see Yudof make such a strong defense of free speech rights in higher education, given his experience in dealing with advocates of university censorship. In August 2012, an official UC advisory body submitted a report to then-President Yudof recommending the prohibition of “hate speech” on UC’s campuses. FIRE responded with a letter to Yudof’s office detailing the blatant unconstitutionality of such a policy and warning of the folly of knowingly violating students’ and faculty members’ First Amendment rights, which would have exposed UC officials to personal liability under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Yudof’s office eventually replied to FIRE’s message with a copy of a letter from President Yudof to members of the Jewish community at UC schools in which he pointed out that “our current policies may go as far as they can, given constitutional limitations.”
Frankly, it is refreshing to see a university president even acknowledge the existence of such limitations. We hope that more university leaders across the nation will follow Yudof’s example in the years to come.