Office of the Chancellor

Free Speech and Civility

Oct. 1, 2014

To the Anteater community: 

As we prepare to start an exciting new academic year I want to share some thoughts on free speech and civility on college campuses. I deeply believe that it is possible to have robust free speech while still being civil to one another and treating each other with mutual respect. 

Freedom of speech is a bedrock value of our constitutional system and at the core of this university’s central mission. Courts have recognized that First Amendment principles “acquire a special significance in the university setting, where the free and unfettered interplay of competing views is essential to the institution’s educational mission.” The University of California is also committed to upholding and preserving principles of academic freedom, which for the faculty comprises freedom of inquiry and research, freedom of teaching, and freedom of expression and publication, with related duties of professional care and the requirements of competent scholarship. 

It is in the nature of freedom of speech that we will sometimes be exposed to viewpoints, arguments, or forms of expression that make us uncomfortable or even offend us. It is in precisely these circumstances that free speech often plays its most vital function, especially in an educational context. Throughout history speech that challenges conventional wisdom has been a driving force for progress. Speech that makes us uncomfortable may force us to reconsider our own strongly held views – in fact, a willingness to reconsider strongly held views is one of the reasons why people pursue higher education. Hearing offensive views provides opportunities for those sentiments to be engaged and rebutted. 

Of course, freedom of speech is not and cannot be absolute. Threats, harassment, “fighting words,” incitement, obscenity, and defamatory speech are categories of speech that are not protected. Freedom of speech does not mean a right to say anything at any place and any time; there can and must be restrictions on the time, place, and manner of speech, but the campus is committed to ensuring the availability of places for speeches and protests. 

Beyond the issue of what one has the right to do is the much more interesting and important question of what is the right thing to do. 

We live during a period of increased division and incivility in our politics and public discourse. It is of value to society if there is a place where people decide that they will come together in the spirit of inquiry and discovery, and will work together to embrace the virtues of a scholarly community: rigorous inquiry, evidence-based reasoning, logical argumentation, experimentation, fair-minded assessments of competing perspectives, balanced judgment, ongoing skepticism, and a willingness to reassess one’s perspective in light of new evidence and arguments. 

These beliefs and practices – these scholarly norms – are inextricably linked to other values, including a genuine desire to engage competing perspectives and learn from those who have had different experiences or who hold different views, and a commitment to resolving (or at least better understanding) disagreement through reasoned and sustained conversation, debate, and the acquisition of new knowledge. 

If our commitment to freedom and democracy leads us to defend the rights of free speech, our commitment to scholarly inquiry and education leads us to create norms of civility. We as an academic community cannot do our distinctive work in the world without establishing norms and practices that enable us to learn from each other in an atmosphere of positive engagement and mutual respect. When we work through our differences we should do so in a way that sheds more light than heat. 

My hope and goal is that this year, and every year, all of us will remain civil to one another, especially when we passionately disagree. We strive for this because such an environment is conducive to sharing and critically examining knowledge and values, and to furthering the search for wisdom – the very purposes we sought to pursue when we decided to join this remarkable community.

I wish you all an enlightening year.

Chancellor Howard Gillman