Faculty Network Interview: Michelle Deutchman, UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement

June 30, 2022

In this occasional feature, FIRE interviews members of our Faculty Network to discuss their research, teaching, and advocacy on free expression at their institutions. This month, we talked with Michelle Deutchman, executive director of the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement

As the Center’s inaugural executive director, Michelle oversees the Center’s operations, programming, and research, including its multidisciplinary national fellowship program. She also facilitates workshops for staff, students, administrators, and law enforcement on First Amendment principles and how to safeguard free speech while simultaneously maintaining a safe and inclusive campus climate. Before joining the Center, Deutchman served for 14 years as western states civil rights counsel and national campus counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. From 2014-2018, Deutchman taught a law seminar at UCLA School of Law that she designed, “Sword or Shield: Contemporary Free Exercise Issues.”

Interviews are conducted via email and are lightly edited for length and clarity. 

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First, can you tell our readers about your background, and what brought you to the UC Free Speech Center?

Thanks for this opportunity to talk with you and FIRE constituents. I am a lawyer by training but have had a non-traditional career. After a short stint at a private firm (litigation was not for me), I followed my passion for nonprofit policy and education and went to work at the Anti-Defamation League. Over 14 years, I served as ADL’s western states civil rights counsel and as their national campus counsel. In that role, I created training modules for K-12 teachers and university stakeholders on religion and speech in schools, and was certified as a Peace Officer and Training Standards educator to instruct law enforcement on hate crimes/bias incidents and speech.

When former UC President Janet Napolitano established the Center in 2017, I leapt at the opportunity to be part of building a unique entity dedicated to educating, studying, and problem-solving expression and engagement issues in higher education. It was an added bonus that it brought me back to my UC roots — I graduated from Cal (‘97) and my dog  (Berkele)y is named for my alma mater.

Can you talk about the Center’s overall mission and its various programs and offerings? What motivated its establishment, and how has it grown since its inception?

You may recall that 2017 witnessed some high-profile campus speech controversies including Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley and Charles Murray at Middlebury. That year the Goldwater Institute introduced its model campus expression legislation, and the press heralded headlines about a campus speech crisis. Additionally, in July 2017, Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman (later named as co-chairs of the Center’s National Advisory Board) published the first edition of their acclaimed book, Free Speech on Campus.

While friction does exist between expression and diversity and inclusion, framing them as mutually exclusive only serves to exacerbate rancor.

Recognizing the significance of this moment, Napolitano founded the Center to continue UC’s free speech legacy and to ensure the conversation moved from soundbites to thoughtful dialogue. Our role is to explore the intersection of expression, engagement, and democratic learning and to consider what can be done to restore trust in the value of free speech on college campuses and within society at large.

The Center’s home within the greatest public university system and our focus on current challenges viewed through the lens of higher education make us unique — as does our pragmatic approach to our work. We are committed to educating administrators, staff, students, and faculty and creating resources to help them navigate the uncharted legal and campus climate issues they face daily. We do this through our fellows program, events, national conference, podcast, and VOICE initiative. All of our programs and research are offered at no cost in order to ensure accessibility by the largest number of people.

We’ve had a number of the Center’s fellows present their work at our Faculty Network Conference over the years; that was, in fact, what got me thinking that this would be a worthwhile discussion for us to have. I’d love to talk more about that program particularly. What does the Center look for in terms of the research it supports and what is the program’s role in carrying out the Center’s greater mission?

Do not assume stakeholders know the First Amendment only protects individuals’ speech from censorship or retaliation by the government or that hateful speech is constitutionally protected.  

Each year, the Center selects fellows from a broad range of disciplines and backgrounds such as law, journalism, higher education, social science, technology, and government. Fellows receive funding to further the national conversation related to expression and democratic participation on college campuses including how to advance campus dialogue and further diversity and inclusion. When selecting fellows, the Center considers the practical application of the research as well as how and which campus constituencies will benefit from or be impacted by the project. 

Our fellows’ work has touched on a diverse set of issues including: balancing diversity and expression, academic freedom, campus press, self-censorship in the classroom, fostering civil discourse on campus, activism, best practices to respond to offensive speech, and bias response teams. 

Both of our organizations pay considerable attention to how universities are navigating their dual commitments to free expression and diversity and inclusion, and the tensions that sometimes arise. Have your years at the Center and the research and programming you’ve supported given you any useful insights into productively threading that needle? 

This is a charged, challenging and complex issue, one I have grappled with for the length of my career. My tenure as executive director has provided me numerous opportunities to talk with and learn from a variety of stakeholders about how they and their institutions approach this issue. A few insights: 

  • Education is key. Go back to basics: Do not assume stakeholders know the First Amendment only protects individuals’ speech from censorship or retaliation by the government or that hateful speech is constitutionally protected.  
  • Ensure that campus community members understand and can articulate why freedom of expression, diversity, equity, and inclusion are essential to the mission of higher education and to their institution in particular.
  • Be proactive. Ideally, a diverse group of staff, students, and administrators will regularly meet to discuss inclusion challenges and efforts as well as free speech policies and their enforcement.
  • While friction does exist between expression and diversity and inclusion, framing them as mutually exclusive only serves to exacerbate rancor. Instead, consider how they work in concert to help higher education fulfill its promise.
  • When given time and opportunity to discuss these values (away from the glare of media/social media), people often realize they agree on much more than they ever expected.

Lastly, any projects or programs with the Center you’re particularly excited about for the upcoming year, or that you’re particularly pleased with from the past year?

The Center will be marking its fifth anniversary this coming October; it’s exciting to see how much growth we have made in such a short time. Today we have a community of 50 fellows completing cutting-edge research; monthly programming on timely and impactful issues; and grants to support over 60 UC students, staff, and faculty who are creating innovative ways to increase engagement and expression on all 10 University of California campuses. These issues have even more relevance today than when the Center was founded, and I look forward to tackling new challenges in the months and years ahead.