UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Email Is Very Wrong About Freedom of Speech

September 9, 2014

Popehat’s Ken White has called out University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) Chancellor Nicholas Dirks for an email he sent to faculty, staff, and students on Friday in which he utterly failed to grasp key First Amendment principles. Dirks began his email by celebrating the 50th anniversary of the “Free Speech Movement.” FIRE hoped UC Berkeley would use the occasion to bump itself up to a “green light” institution. Disappointingly, Dirks’ email devolved into a lecture on civility and responsibility as limits to freedom of expression.

White took Dirks to task on Saturday, expertly explaining why Dirks’ email is so troubling. For example, Dirks wrote:

Yet this is easier said than done, for the boundaries between protected and unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between the campus and the classroom, between debate and demagoguery, between freedom and responsibility, have never been fully settled.

In his article, White responds:

No. Absolutely not.

Chancellor Dirks is using a variation on a common censor’s trick — saying “well, the First Amendment doesn’t protect all speech, and sometimes the line is blurry” to justify broad restrictions. This is akin to me walking up to you, punching you in the face without warning, and saying “well, not all violence is prohibited. Under some circumstances it is permissible.”

Yes, the First Amendment doesn’t protect everything. Yes, not every possible First Amendment question has been resolved. Yes, sometimes First Amendment analysis is complex. But most often we deal in questions that have conclusive answers. Universities would like to pretend otherwise, and strive for ambiguity where there is none, but most campus speech issues are easily resolved by anyone sincerely concerned with the rule of law. Can students hand out the United States Constitution outside of an arbitrary “free speech zone? Yes. Can public schools punish students for mere crass insults? No.

Further, as White notes, “There is no ‘demagoguery’ exception to the First Amendment.”

White takes Dirks’ email down point-by-point in the rest of his must-read entry—check it out over at Popehat. And in case you missed it this morning, be sure to read FIRE President Greg Lukianoff’s response to the email in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Schools:  University of California, Berkeley