The Los Angeles Times published an interesting article yesterday on the issue of "anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bias" on University of California (UC) campuses. Among other developments, the article covers that UC's Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion issued formal recommendations this past summer to UC System President Mark Yudof that UC "push its current harassment and nondiscrimination provisions further" and "seek opportunities to prohibit hate speech on campus."
Much of the content of the UC reports is outside the scope of FIRE's mission, and we take no position on those particular issues. We are alarmed, however, that an entire public university system would consider outright banning "hate speech" on campus, however that would be defined, in contravention of its duty to uphold the First Amendment. We were also alarmed that, as the Times picks up, the Advisory Council "acknowledges that such rules might prompt legal challenges but urges UC to 'accept the challenge.'" In a letter sent to President Yudof in August, we expressed our concerns over students' free speech rights in light of these ill-conceived recommendations.
In yesterday's Times piece, FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley echoes these concerns:
Schools can ban incitement to violence and harassment but cannot prohibit political speech no matter how upsetting it may be, said Will Creeley, an official at the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education .... "The answer to offensive speech is more speech, not censorship," he said.
Happily, he is not the only one in the article to draw the important distinction between unlawful conduct and student speech that, while perhaps offensive to some, is protected under the First Amendment. Enter President Yudof:
Yudof said that he would probably implement some recommendations in the reports, especially the ones about better accommodating religious observances. But in a recent interview, he said he wouldn't adopt any limits on speech since those would violate the 1st Amendment.
"In general, anti-Semitic, anti-Hispanic, anti-black, anti-women, anti-gay speech, as opposed to action or discrimination, is protected," Yudof said, adding that he would work to ensure that no student is illegally harassed and that no hate crime laws are broken.
Indeed, Yudof demonstrated the same crucial understanding of free speech principles in his August response to FIRE's letter. We're happy that he did; students' freedom of expression at the UC campuses is better off for it.
We'll keep an eye on the UC system to see what further developments may take place on this matter. In the meantime, our thanks to the Times for its coverage and for getting our take.