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Sather Gate at the University of California System's flagship campus, the University of California at Berkeley.

University of California Student Leaders: Free Speech Shouldn’t ‘Distract’ from Inclusivity Discussions

By January 13, 2016

The University of California (UC) Board of Regents has been at the center of a months-long debate over its problematic “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance,” proposed to combat bigotry on campus. Last week, a group of UC student body presidents stoked concerns about the policy by a publishing a statement asking that concerns about free speech not “distract” from the Regents’ mission to foster inclusiveness on UC campuses.

FIRE worried that the Regents’ proposed statement would chill protected speech when it was announced. In September, the Regents held a meeting to consider comments from campus community members and to address fears that UC would either unconstitutionally censor speech or fail to adequately address intolerance. The meeting, although largely inconclusive, presented more problems than solutions to FIRE’s concerns.

Particularly troubling were students’ demands that the Regents reverse their decision not to adopt the U.S. State Department definition of anti-Semitism (which FIRE notes would have been unconstitutional if adopted as enforceable policy), as well as Regent Richard Blum’s threat that UC would suffer political consequences from his wife, United States Senator Dianne Feinstein, unless the statement UC adopted included punishments for violators. Ultimately, the Regents agreed to convene a working group of university stakeholders, including students, faculty, and Regents, to address the issues raised about the statement’s myriad problems.  

Last Friday, a group of UC student leaders, the University of California Council of Student Body Presidents, published its “Recommendations to Regents’ Statement of Principles Against Intolerance.” The recommendations focus on the broad goals of diversity promotion and support services for minority students:

As the Board is finalizing the language for this statement, we encourage them to not stop their efforts to support students and develop a healthy campus climate. We call on the Board to increase cultural and support services for marginalized groups and to work to eliminate hostile climates; both objectives can benefit from use of strategies such as education around cultural sensitivity, equity, and inclusion for all constituencies. We also call on the Board to prioritize the continued diversification of students, staff, and faculty. Doing so will reduce feelings of isolation and improve cross-cultural understanding. The diversification of the faculty means that students will see their culture reflected in the course curriculum; the diversification of staff means that support services will have a greater quality of care and understanding for all students; and the diversification of undergraduate and graduate students means that we can grow an intellectual workforce that resembles the population of the state of CA.

While the letter avoided making specific policy suggestions, the student leaders’ dismissal of freedom of speech as part of the conversation is concerning:

There has been much discussion about the effect that this statement will have on free speech and academic freedom. While both of these topics are important, especially if this statement will include actionable items, it is crucial that we do not let such conversations distract us from the true purpose of this statement: the fostering of an inclusive university environment where students can learn and thrive freely without fear and intimidation.

Unfortunately, the student leaders’ recommendations seem to adopt the all-too-common attitude that guarantees of free speech are at odds with an “environment where students can learn and thrive freely without fear and intimidation.” Yet there is an obvious climate of fear and intimidation created when someone can face official punishment for slipping up and saying the “wrong” thing about controversial topics.

And make no mistake, this would be the case if a statement against anti-Semitism (or indeed any viewpoint) includes “actionable items,” more commonly known as penalties for speech. There was a time not so long ago when those with politically unpopular views about segregation, lack of gay rights, or the Vietnam War (that is, that these things were bad) had reason to fear official punishment on campus. Because of our First Amendment rights, free speech concerns were indeed ultimately allowed to “distract” from the authorities’ goals of shoring up support for the political decisions of the day, which undoubtedly seemed as important to policymakers of the time as concerns about inclusivity are to today’s UC student leaders.

Students are under no obligation to make free speech their top priority or even acknowledge its importance. But before they ask the University of California, which has already considered adopting policies that could punish students for expressing unpopular ideas, to downplay the importance of free speech, some historical perspective is in order. When a university is in the midst of crafting policies that have the potential to chill or limit students’ and professors’ ability to engage in controversial discussions on campus, free speech concerns should not be dismissed as a distraction. They should be front and center.

FIRE hopes that in future discussions about UC’s response to campus intolerance, the Regents allow free speech concerns to “distract” them from instituting a policy that would threaten students’ First Amendment rights—and that would violate their obligations to uphold the Constitution.