Monday, July 22

Law professors discuss free speech protections on college campuses


Richard Epstein, a law professor at New York University and University of Chicago, said self-censorship has become an increasingly worrying problem, especially in university classrooms. He added students should not be fearful of sharing their opinions with their peers and professors. (Tanmay Shankar/Daily Bruin)

Richard Epstein, a law professor at New York University and University of Chicago, said self-censorship has become an increasingly worrying problem, especially in university classrooms. He added students should not be fearful of sharing their opinions with their peers and professors. (Tanmay Shankar/Daily Bruin)


A law professor said all forms of free speech, including hate speech, should be protected on university campuses.

John Villasenor, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, spoke with Richard Epstein, a law professor at New York University and University of Chicago, about the First Amendment and its applications to business, higher education and politics at an event Tuesday.

The event was put on by the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, a non-partisan organization under UCLA School of Law that aims to promote the principles of freedom, federalism and judicial restraint.

Epstein said he feels individual opinions should not be suppressed and that self-censorship has become an increasingly worrying problem, especially in university classrooms. He added students sometimes fear disagreeing with their professors, leading them to censor their opinions in their classes.

He said students are entitled to their own opinions and should not be fearful of sharing their opinions to their peers and to their professors, even if their professors may disagree with them.

“I don’t mind finding situations where teachers disagree,” Epstein said. “I think it’s wrong for teachers to engage in mocking … with respect to students with views they disagree with.”

Epstein added businesses such as Google have recently encountered issues regarding free speech and the First Amendment.

He said a former Google employee filed a suit against the company in 2018 after the employee was fired for circulating a memo suggesting women were inferior to men in technology jobs.

While he felt the executives at Google were entitled to their opinions, Epstein said he did not think there was cause to fire the employee simply because of differing perspectives.

Epstein said people should not suppress other individuals’ speech, even if that speech is hateful. He added people can demonstrate support by bolstering the victim of hate speech, but not by suppressing the instigator.

“You can go home or you can speak against it, but you can’t suppress it,” Epstein said.

Vinson Lin, a law student, said as a student from Taiwan, he felt free speech in America is an interesting topic because issues surrounding free speech and political correctness have become more contentious during President Donald Trump’s presidency.

“The American system is like a model of free exchange of ideas,” Lin said.

Elena Torres-Pepito, a second-year economics student, said she attended the event because she is interested in free speech and the role it plays in today’s contentious political climate.

“You wonder what really is free speech,” Torres-Pepito said.

Villasenor said a recent change to the UCLA faculty hiring process requires prospective faculty interested in promotions to provide statements describing their contributions to equity, diversity and inclusion.

Epstein said he is opposed to these changes because he thinks they restrict honest opinions of prospective faculty.

“For young people, the ability to navigate this stuff is so difficult that most of the people that I know that want to get teaching positions – they gravitate away from hot-button constitutional issues,” Epstein said.

He added that the new change may deter conservative thinkers from applying for jobs at more liberal institutions, and encourage them to work at conservative institutions instead.

“I think it’s wonderful that they go there, but I think one of the great weaknesses of having great conservative thinkers go to these great think tanks that are conservative is they don’t have a chance to interact with students – some of whom they agree with, and some of whom they do not,” Epstein said.

He added institutions should not force diversity of opinion on prospective faculty, and should let diversity of opinion develop naturally among faculty.

“If you search for excellence given the change in the conversation of the workforce, you will end up with diversity,” Epstein said. “But I think if you start with the work for diversity and hope to get excellence from that, you’ll only end up with mediocrity.”

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