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Speech Code of the Month: University of California, Santa Barbara

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for September 2015: the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

This summer, incoming UCSB students received a letter from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, which is also posted on the university’s website under the heading “A Letter to Students: What it Means to be Part of the UCSB Community.” In that letter, the UCSB administration states its “expectations” for a civil community, and it asks students to report to the administration any behaviors that conflict with the values it sets forth. Specifically, the letter says:

[A]cts of intolerance, disrespect, bullying, or violence, especially regarding sexual orientation, race, gender, ethnicity or religion (e.g., anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic expressions or behaviors) compromise our sense of community, our feeling of personal well-being, and our ability to live and learn together. … We encourage you to report such behavior, if you encounter it, and to seek assistance for yourself or others from the following resources if you become aware of an incident that compromises the values of our community. [Emphases added.]

This letter casts a powerful chilling effect over speech on controversial political and social issues at UCSB.

Regrettably, this issue is not limited to UCSB. The entire UC system remains embroiled in a discussion of campus anti-Semitism following several incidents stemming from the heated debate over the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Some are urging the system to formally adopt the U.S. State Department’s broad definition of anti-Semitism, and on Thursday, the UC Board of Regents will consider a dangerously broad “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance” that would chill controversial speech throughout the entire UC system.

But UCSB is the first university FIRE has seen that officially—if somewhat obliquely (“anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic expressions or behaviors”)—references the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in its speech codes. Many acts of anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic behavior can be legitimately punished under existing laws and conduct codes. When a Jewish fraternity house is spray-painted with swastikas, for example, that is not only anti-Semitism, but also illegal vandalism. But by casting a wide net that includes any speech that another student feels is anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic—common feelings among students discussing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict—UCSB is discouraging the kind of open debate that should characterize the university environment.

The letter also reflects the kind of magical thinking that informs so many university speech codes. It’s as if administrators believe that if only they can stop students from saying hurtful things, the underlying conflicts will go away. In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. To see this, one need only look to Europe, which—despite its strict hate speech laws—has serious problems with both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

By discouraging debate among new students out of the gate, UCSB is doing its students a terrible disservice in the name of tolerance and civility. Encouraging civil debate generally is one thing. Policing the speech of individual students is another, and it is simply unacceptable.

For these reasons, UC Santa Barbara is our September 2015 Speech Code of the Month.

If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code. If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining the FIRE Student Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

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