In the past year, student political life across the University of California has been roiled by deep divisions and rather uncivil conduct between communities, especially regarding divestment.
From the last academic year’s 11-hour student government meeting about divestment from companies that profit off the Israeli occupation of Gaza, bookended by physical threats to councilmembers before it happened and cruel cyberbullying of the minute-taker in the aftermath, to this summer’s contentious dispute regarding UC student regent-designate Avi Oved’s appointment, the student conversation around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been damaging and unproductive.
In light of that, it makes sense that UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks recently sent out a campus-wide email on the 50th anniversary of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement emphasizing the importance of “civility” when we exercise our right to free speech.
Not really. Dirks’ email has been criticized by several organizations for seeming to temper support for free speech, including the American Association of University Professors and California Scholars for Academic Freedom. And it’s raised eyebrows for good reason – while it’s certainly in the chancellor’s job description to facilitate respectful dialogue on campus, an email commenting on the importance of free speech is the wrong place to make exhortations about “civility.”
Dirks’ email just so happened to arrive at a time when almost every UC campus is caught up in a contentious debate about the same issue. UC President Janet Napolitano apparently asked all UC chancellors to address free speech on campus, and it’s my feeling that her request and the campus debates on divestment are not unrelated.
Civility is an ideal for any conversation, especially one that’s so wrapped up in identity, community and religion. But it doesn’t behoove the chancellor to make arguments about an ideal when he’s discussing the importance of a constitutionally protected right. Free speech does not have to be civil or gracious, especially not civil as determined by the administration of a university.
It’s within the scope of Dirks’ duty to call for civility, and he could have simply sent out an email statement asking for that ideal in campus conversation – but why mention free speech in that email at all? And even more pertinently, why send it out on the 50th anniversary of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement?
There’s no need for Dirks to qualify free speech in any way – the law already prohibits the harmful and unproductive modes of expression that pose a real danger to students. The Leonard Law, which specifically applies the First Amendment to California university students, does not prevent “the imposition of discipline for harassment, threats or intimidation.”
The email is particularly troubling in light of recent controversies around academic freedom. Last month, American studies scholar Steven Salaita was essentially “un-hired” – not fired, the university clarified – from a position at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana because some of his tweets criticized the state of Israel in what some considered an offensive and inappropriate way. The incident has raised a firestorm in the academic community for restricting academic freedom, and many, including UCLA history professor Michael Meranze, have drawn parallels between the Salaita case and Dirks’ email.
Earlier in the year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education gave UCLA and several other UCs a “yellow light” for their freedom of speech policies, saying that some policies were too vague and potentially allow for overreach by administration.
A week after his first email, Dirks sent out another email explaining that he “did not mean to suggest any constraint on freedom of speech, nor … to compromise in any way our commitment to academic freedom.” After the firestorm the original email caused, a sort of retraction or qualification is to be expected. But it’s troubling that the chancellor had to be sharply criticized before apparently realizing what his message implied.
We at UCLA can likely expect a statement from Chancellor Gene Block in the coming weeks, although it will probably be written differently considering the uproar over Dirks’ email. And that’s a good thing. Chancellors across the UC should consider the request by Napolitano carefully – does a conversation about civility really belong in a conversation about free speech?
The rising consensus is no. Certainly many members of the UCLA community in particular could stand a lecture or two about respect and civility – but as much as we may not like what people say, we have a higher duty to defend their right to say it.