UC Launches Free Speech Center in D.C.

Photo courtesy of Rachael Garner / The Daily Californian.

The University of California (UC) announced plans last Thursday to establish a national center in order to study the First Amendment and its effects on college campuses.

The National Center of Free Speech and Civic Engagement, which UC President Janet Napolitano will chair, will be based in UC’s Washington, D.C. building and will be funded with money from the UC presidential endowment and private donations. The new center will focus on conducting research on students’ perceptions of free speech and how polarization and social media change their ideas. Applications for a key fellowship program will open Nov. 9.

“Few issues today are more timely, or more challenging, than free speech on our nation’s college campuses,” Napolitano said in a University of California Office of the President press release. “Our country needs an outlet to grapple with changing views on the First Amendment, and what these mean for America and how our democracy functions.”

The center’s advisory board will be led by UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman and UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky. In September, the two co-wrote a book entitled Free Speech on Campus, which discusses the fine line between free speech and maintaining an open-minded college environment.

Chemerinsky, a longtime professor of First Amendment law, believes students want to limit offensive speech as a way of providing a more inclusive environment. Although he believes that students are well-intentioned, he says that suppressing hate speech does not equate to promoting the ideals of the First Amendment. According to Chemerinsky, it is acceptable to house a controversial speaker in an auditorium or dictate when and where a speaker may present, but canceling such a speaker should be the very last option.

“Disputes over free speech on campus have long occurred, but today is different. Usually in the past, it was students who wanted to speak out and campus administrators who tried to stop demonstrations. Now it often is about outside speakers and outside disruptors, like the radical leftist protest group Antifa,” Chemerinsky wrote in an article for Vox, “The campus is just the place for their battle.”

The center’s advisory board is comprised of students, professors, and journalists, including former US senator Barbara Boxer, NPR White House Correspondent Tamara Keith, and former UC Student Regent Avi Oved. Also on the advisory board is Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, who has in recent months questioned whether or not campus rape is an epidemic and praised Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’ changes to the rules governing how campuses investigate charges of sexual assault.

“The statistic that one in five women is sexually assaulted on college campuses is a highly dubious statistic,” Stephens said. “If it were a true statistic, it would probably create a very different environment.”

Stephens is best known for a widely-panned column he released in April claiming that the statistics on climate change are dubious. However, Stephens’ article directly contradicts research conducted at the UCSD Scripps Institute of Oceanography, which has published research that directly correlates climate change with the rising sea levels along San Diego’s beaches.

When asked why Stephens was selected to serve on the advisory board, Stephanie Beechem, a Media Relations representative for the UC Office of the President, told The Triton that President Napolitano asked the members to join.

UC Berkeley is historically the birthplace of the free speech movement, but recent events at college campuses across the country, including UC campuses, have prompted a renewed discussion of how campuses approach invited speakers and protests. In February, masked anti-fascist protesters who were protesting the appearance of the white nationalist commentator and Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos forced UC Berkeley to cancel the event and pay $100,000 for damages. Similarly, protests erupted at UC Davis in January prior to an event hosted by the Davis College Republicans featuring Yiannopoulos and ex-pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli.

Judith Gutierrez, the President of the UC Student Association, hopes that the new center works “thoughtfully” to redefine the parameters of free speech so that students can better understand the gray area between hate speech and free speech to protect vulnerable communities.

“College campuses are becoming places for sometimes vitriolic exchanges in the name of free exchange of ideas. Since Donald Trump was elected, students are facing open attacks by white supremacists because they are undocumented, Muslim, not-white, or not-male,” Gutierrez said. “We’ve seen this most visibly in Charlottesville and this year at UC Berkeley. Words become real threats and acts of violence.”

Earlier in September, Yiannopoulos worked with a small conservative student newspaper, The Berkeley Patriot, to host a “Free Speech Week” on campus. On the day the event was scheduled, The Patriot canceled the event, filed a complaint amidst campus protests, and, according to The Washington Post, alleged the school imposed “arbitrary and irrational bureaucratic hurdles on student groups which seek to exercise their First Amendment rights by holding public debates.”

There is a cost to hosting conservative and so-called “hateful speakers.” UC Berkeley spent $600,000 in security precautions to host conservative commentator Ben Shapiro and $800,000 to host Yiannopoulos in September for fifteen minutes.

The center will also fund the creation of a fellowship program to bring together policy thinkers, social scientists, journalists and the like to look into contemporary issues surrounding free speech, including the issues directly pertaining to UC campuses. The first group of fellows will be chosen by the advisory board in January. Their work will set the basis for a national conference in 2018, in which university leaders will come together and discuss new ways to approach the issue of free speech on college campuses.

“[The] UC should use the new center to be a thought leader in defining the gray area between free speech and hate speech in order to protect vulnerable communities from these attacks,” Gutierrez said. “Any efforts not aimed toward that goal should make students wary that the University is using the rhetoric of free speech to co-opt a student movement and better its reputation.”

Ella Chen is a staff writer at The Triton.