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The California State Capitol in Sacramento.

California legislature unanimously urges colleges to adopt free speech policies consistent with the ‘Chicago Statement’

By August 15, 2017

The California legislature unanimously passed a resolution that urges “all private and public universities in California” to adopt free speech statements modeled off of the Chicago Statement and a statement issued by the Chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, Howard Gillman. The resolution was introduced by Assemblymembers Kevin Kiley and Bill Quirk. It passed the California Assembly 76-0 and the Senate 39-0.

The resolution contains quotes from a number of notable figures to frame for colleges the principles of free expression, and why those principles need to be protected and promoted on campuses in California.

The resolution quotes University of California President Janet Napolitano, who wrote: “[T]he way to deal with extreme, unfounded speech is not with less speech — it is with more speech, informed by facts and persuasive argument. Educating students from an informed ‘more speech’ approach as opposed to silencing an objectionable speaker should be one of academia’s key roles.”

Former president Barack Obama is also quoted in the resolution. Speaking at Howard University’s commencement in 2016, Obama said:

There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that – no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths…There will be times when you shouldn’t compromise your core values, your integrity, and you will have the responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice. But listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.”

The resolution also says that “[a]t least 16 universities across the country have adopted a version of the University of Chicago statement on free speech,” and it encourages colleges to adopt free speech statements consistent with the principles espoused by the Chicago Statement. In 2015, FIRE launched our own campaign encouraging colleges to adopt free speech policies modeled after the Chicago Statement.

Gillman penned a letter addressed to the UC Irvine campus community called “Rights of Free Speech and Academic Freedom,” which is quoted in the resolution:

Free speech requires us to accept that we will be exposed to viewpoints, arguments or forms of expression that make us uncomfortable or even offend us. It is in precisely these circumstances that free speech often serves its most vital purpose, especially in an educational context. Throughout history, speech that challenges conventional wisdom has been a driving force for progress. Speech that makes us uneasy may compel us to reconsider our own strongly held views – in fact, a willingness to reconsider strongly held views is one of the reasons why people pursue higher education. Hearing offensive viewpoints provides opportunities for those sentiments to be exposed, engaged and rebutted.

Universities exist to provide the conditions for hard thought and difficult debate so that individuals can develop the capacity for independent judgment. This cannot happen if universities attempt to shield people from ideas and opinions they might find unwelcome, or if members of the university community try to silence or interfere with speakers with whom they disagree. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis advised in his famous Whitney v. California opinion in 1927, ‘If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.’

All of these statements, taken together, pave the way for colleges to draft their own statements and policies to protect free expression on their campuses. FIRE is pleased that the California legislature has urged all colleges within the state, both public and private, to adopt free speech statements. We stand ready to assist any California college or university to adopt such a statement and to reform current policies inconsistent with the principles set forth by the Chicago Statement.

Cases: FIRE Launches Campaign in Support of University of Chicago Free Speech Statement