This year has been an eventful and oftentimes tumultuous time for free speech on college campuses across the nation. Nowhere has this been more apparent than on the many campuses of the University of California system.
Cognizant of the increasingly tense climate for free expression in higher education, the California legislature unanimously passed a resolution in July urging “all private and public universities in California” to adopt a free speech policy statement consistent with the statement by the chancellor of the University of California at Irvine, Howard Gillman, as well as the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” at the University of Chicago (better known as the “Chicago Statement”).
In response to the legislature, the Assembly of the Academic Senate of the University of California endorsed a statement titled “On the Free Exchange of Information,” drafted by its University Committee on Academic Freedom. The Assembly subsequently corresponded with the president of the University of California system, Janet Napolitano, expressing the intention to “contribute to the ongoing dialogue concerning First Amendment Rights” with this statement.
“On the Free Exchange of Information” is an overarching statement of principles that recognizes the inherent value of free inquiry and debate and condemns the growing trend of censorship on campus and in society at large. Defending the bedrock principles of free expression, the statement quotes intellectuals such as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Stuart Mill. “If we are not free to examine and test every claim,” the statement reads, “we are no longer participating in a genuine attempt to discover truth.” The assembly also makes the following convincing argument:
It is easy to defend the rights of speakers we agree with, and too easy to forget that their rights are only secure as rights, rather than privileges, if speakers of whom we disapprove can also appeal to them.
Aside from setting forth principles, the statement seeks to promote an ongoing conversation throughout the University of California system to educate members of its campuses about the First Amendment, and to “work with students to help them develop more productive, effective and intellectually engaged methods of response to speakers whose opinions they dislike. . . .”
In a similar vein, just last week the University of Illinois system released “Guiding Principles” on several important topics, including “Freedom of Speech on Campus.” The Principles reflect the system’s commitment to encouraging free expression on its campuses. A staunch defense of free speech, the Principles affirm: “An unyielding allegiance to freedom of speech – even controversial, contentious, and unpopular speech – is indispensable to developing the analytical and communication skills of our students and empowering all members of our university communities to be active and informed citizens.”
The Principles send a strong message to students, faculty, and other members of the University of Illinois communities that hecklers will not be tolerated, and that the system’s leadership is willing to accept that there may be a “price to be paid for a steadfast loyalty to free speech.”
FIRE commends the University of California’s Assembly of the Academic Senate and the University of Illinois system for actively encouraging open expression and debate on their campuses. We urge other colleges and universities to do the same by adopting a free speech policy statement today.