Janet Napolitano in ‘The Boston Globe’: ‘It’s time to free speech on campus again’

September 30, 2016

In an editorial published online today by The Boston Globe, president of the University of California System and former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano writes that campus communities must embrace a “more speech”-informed educational model if they want produce “students who are thoughtful, well-informed, and resilient.”

Napolitano acknowledges that’s no easy task these days, observing that the concept of broad speech protections—hard-won by University of California, Berkeley students as part of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s —seems to have “been turned on its head.”

“I write to show how far we have moved from freedom of speech on campuses to freedom from speech,” Napolitano writes. “If it hurts, if it’s controversial, if it articulates an extreme point of view, then speech has become the new bête noire of the academy. Speakers are disinvited, faculty are vilified, and administrators like me are constantly asked to intervene.”

“What has happened,” she asks, “and what are we to do about it?”

The answer, Napolitano argues, is to first acknowledge the historical and social factors that played a role in this shift, and then consider how our democratic values and Enlightenment-era ideals can provide a path forward. She concludes that a “more speech”-informed approach to tackling divisive issues does a far better job than censorship at effecting positive social change:

The more difficult issues arise when students seek to shout down speakers or attempt to prevent them from appearing at all. If one believes in the value of free speech and its place in the modern university, these types of actions are antithetical. I personally disagree with many of the sentiments expressed in the public spaces on our campuses. But the 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. After all, these students will graduate into a country where objectionable speech is the current coin of the realm.

While acknowledging constitutional limits on free speech, she also appears to advocate a “more speech” approach even to issues that implicate speech itself, like trigger warnings. For example, Napolitano believes that faculty should be free to adopt trigger warnings—or not—based on professional standards and after considering all available data. Napolitano hypothesizes that students will benefit from this kind of pedagogically-informed approach and, in turn, contribute to “even richer classroom discussion.”

That brings her to her conclusion: that students need to embrace free speech ideals, and faculty need to teach them:

The world needs more critical, creative thinkers, and American higher education does a better job of producing them than any other higher education system in the world. We seek to make the world a better place for the next generation, and teaching the values and responsibilities of free speech is inextricably linked with this goal.

FIRE is encouraged to see Napolitano—who also shares many of FIRE’s concerns about worrying trends in campus due process—take such a strongly pro-speech stance here.

The piece is worth a full read. Check it out over at The Boston Globe.