September 24, 2015

Free Speech in our Scholarly Community

Dear Fellow Anteaters:

As we start an exciting new academic year, I want to share some thoughts on the protections and norms of free speech on our campus. I deeply believe that it is possible to have robust free speech while treating each other with mutual respect.

Freedom of speech is a bedrock value of our constitutional system and is at the core of this university’s 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 freedom, which for the faculty comprise freedom of inquiry and research, freedom of teaching, and freedom of expression and publication.

Free speech requires us to accept that we will 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 uneasy may compel 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 viewpoints provides opportunities for those sentiments to be exposed, engaged and rebutted.

Universities exist to provide the conditions for hard thought and difficult debate so that individuals can develop the capacity for independent judgment. This cannot happen if universities attempt to shield people from ideas and opinions they might find unwelcome, or if members of the university community try to silence or interfere with speakers with whom they disagree. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis advised in his famous Whitney v. California opinion in 1927, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Of course, freedom of speech is not and cannot be absolute. Threats, harassment, “fighting words,” incitement and defamatory speech 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.

And so we will safeguard freedom of speech. But in addition, I hope we will keep in mind the need to nurture other norms and practices in order for us to perform the distinctive mission of the university.

It is of value to society if there is a place where people decide that they will work together to create a scholarly community dedicated to rigorous inquiry, evidence-based reasoning, logical argumentation, experimentation, 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 related values, including a genuine desire to engage competing perspectives and learn from those who have had different experiences or who hold different viewpoints. It is because of these values that we attempt to resolve (or at least better understand) disagreements through reasoned and sustained conversation, debate and the acquisition of new knowledge. They also lead us to speak out in support of each other when members of our community are subject to hateful, discriminatory and inflammatory personal attacks.

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 promote norms and practices that enable us to learn from each other in an atmosphere of positive engagement and mutual respect.

My hope and goal is that this year, and every year, all of us will remain respectful 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.

Fiat Lux,

Chancellor Howard Gillman