Berkeley’s new chancellor releases powerful statement: ‘Free speech is our legacy’

August 23, 2017

The University of California, Berkeley’s new chancellor, Carol Christ, reinforced her commitment to regain the school’s “free speech legacy” in an email to the campus community this morning. Having declared earlier this month that 2017 was to be a “free speech year,” Christ once again asked students and faculty to rally around the idea of protecting campus speech:

Berkeley, as you know, is the home of the Free Speech Movement, where students on the right and students on the left united to fight for the right to advocate political views on campus. Particularly now, it is critical that the Berkeley community come together once again to protect this right. It is who we are.

The university will work toward a more speech-friendly campus climate, she wrote, not just because the First Amendment requires it, but because free speech is inherently valuable — particularly on college campuses.

[T]he most powerful argument for free speech is not one of legal constraint—that we’re required to allow it—but of value. The public expression of many sharply divergent points of view is fundamental both to our democracy and to our mission as a university. The philosophical justification underlying free speech, most powerfully articulated by John Stuart Mill in his book, On Liberty, rests on two basic assumptions. The first is that truth is of such power that it will always ultimately prevail; any abridgement of argument therefore compromises the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. The second is an extreme skepticism about the right of any authority to determine which opinions are noxious or abhorrent. Once you embark on the path to censorship, you make your own speech vulnerable to it.

Christ cited recent events, like the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, which have prompted many campuses to deny invitations to similarly controversial speakers. She also addressed an invitation to conservative speaker Ben Shapiro for September and confirmed that former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos would also visit campus later this semester. Echoing FIRE’s own reasoning on issues like the heckler’s veto and violence at campus protests, Christ described how the university would ensure those events go on while also addressing campus safety — and why finding that precise balance is so important.

The university has the responsibility to provide safety and security for its community and guests, and we will invest the necessary resources to achieve that goal. If you choose to protest, do so peacefully. That is your right, and we will defend it with vigor. We will not tolerate violence, and we will hold anyone accountable who engages in it.

After months of difficult, lingering questions on Berkeley’s commitment to free expression, FIRE is heartened by this strong statement. Berkeley’s willingness to look at its policies and practices and make changes for the better is instructive for all campuses.

As always, FIRE stands willing to help any college or university that wants to follow their lead.

Schools:  University of California, Berkeley