October 5, 2023

Welcome Remarks on the Year of Free Speech

Hello and welcome to this Kickoff Event for our Year of Free Speech, during which we will be organizing a wide-ranging series of events designed to help you better understand and engage with debates around the meaning of free speech, the nature of academic freedom, and the importance of facilitating productive conversations among people who disagree with each other.

Why is it important to take the time to deepen our understanding and engagement with these issues?

Well, let’s start with the basics about what makes universities work. 

I think we can agree that there are a number of core features and values that a university must have if it is to do its important work in the world.

For example, we need an outstanding scholarly faculty committed to generating new knowledge and transmitting higher knowledge to students.

We need an outstanding study body that is here because they have demonstrated that they have the character and talent to learn even when learning takes serious preparation and hard work.

We need an outstanding staff who make all that we do possible. 

BUT … we also need to make sure that our faculty, students, and staff are dedicated to creating and nurturing and defending the norms and values that sustain the creation and transmission of knowledge.

What are those norms and values?

One set of values involves scholarly expertise.  Our commitment to inquiry and discovery must be driven by the highest professional norms of a scholarly community, which values curiosity, integrity, intellectual humility, intellectual tenacity – which is committed to peer review, rigorous assessments of the quality of evidence and arguments, an openness to new ideas. 

Another set involves inclusive excellence.  For too long higher education has embraced conceptions of excellence that systematically excluded large numbers of people from its benefits. Our commitment to inclusive excellence means that we are intentional about ensuring that our practices allow every member of our diverse community to reach their full potential and contribute at the highest level – and in fact, that diversity also improves our ability to perform our scholarly mission because it expands the range of perspectives and backgrounds that we must take seriously in the search for truth. 

But a final set of values involves a commitment to the principles of free speech and academic freedom.  I believe that universities can only do their important work if they support and maintain a commitment to these principles as well.  These values are precisely what distinguishes modern universities from colleges earlier in our history that expected people to teach and believe only what was approved by college officials or government officials.

Of the three core values that make a university work – scholarly expertise, inclusive excellence, and free speech & academic freedom – the ones that are least well understood and (therefore) most under assault are free speech and academic freedom.

I’ve reached this conclusion after having devoted much of the last 8 years of my life thinking about and working on these issues.  I’ve tried to do my homework!

For a number of years, I taught an undergraduate seminar on campus free speech, which gave me wonderful opportunities to spend months and months with amazing students learning about and discussing these issues.

I have co-authored a book on the topic, with my old friend Erwin Chemerinsky.

I’ve spoken about these topics with faculty, administrators, and students at many different campuses across the country.

I’ve had the honor of providing administrative oversight of the UC National Center on Free Speech and Civic Engagement and watched the amazing work it has done these past 6 years within the University of California and across the country.

And over this time, I have learned that the meaning of free speech and academic freedom is not self-evident to most people. 

It’s no one’s fault that there is a lack of basic understanding because these values are not intuitive; they must be taught and reflected on, discussed and debated – not just by experts, but by the entire university community, since we all have an obligation to create and maintain the norms and values that are central to our mission.

We also see that hardly a week goes by where there is not another controversy on a college campus about free speech and academic freedom.

Recently we have seen law students at Stanford believe it was their right and obligation to disrupt the speech of a federal judge who had been invited to speak by a conservative student group at the law school.

We have seen an art history professor at Hamline University be condemned as Islamophobic and had her teaching contract ended for showing a famous 14th century Persian manuscript painting to her art history class because it included a depiction of the prophet, which was considered offensive to some of the campus’ Muslim students.

And in the most troubling development, we are seeing efforts by many state legislatures to impose educational gag orders on faculty and students who teach what these politicians consider to be “divisive topics,” usually relating to issues of race and gender. From their point of view, campuses should not teach dangerous or hateful speech, and they choose to define dangerous or hateful speech as speech about race and gender in America.

There are countless examples of these controversies… And before too long, another controversy around these issues will arise on this campus.

After talking to our academic senate, student government, and staff assembly about the value of looking more closely at these issues, we are ready to go!

Today we are kicking things off, but there will be much more work to do. 

During the year we will need to discuss what the law does and does not allow public universities to do when campus members express ideas that some consider dangerous or hateful.

We will need to understand the difference between legitimate protest and non-protected disruption of university activities. 

We should end up with a better understanding of the kinds of time, place, and manner restrictions that the campus is allowed to impose on speech activities.

It will be very important to understand the difference between free speech and academic freedom.

And I hope that we can commit ourselves, across the campus, to model conversations across the divide, to demonstrate how disagreement can be exposed, discussed, and debated in a context of mutual respect and with an eye on deepening our understanding of different points of view.

I want to thank the members of our steering committee for helping conceptualize and organize our calendar for this year, and to everyone on the campus who is considering what kinds of briefings, events, or debates would be most appropriate for your corner of the campus.

In just a minute you will meet four members of our steering committee, and they will share some of their thoughts on the importance of this effort. 

After that, we will have the first of our briefings on these topics by the chair of our steering committee, who is also the amazing executive director of the UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, Michelle Deutchman.  I’ve had the honor of working with Michelle for many years now – and most recently, Michelle and I put together an online course on Free Speech and Academic Freedom to give all of our students greater opportunities to delve into these debates. 

Michelle will provide a very basic introduction to free speech and academic freedom principles for about 30 minutes, and then I will join her so that we can answer some of your initial questions on the topic.  The questions can come in using the Q and A feature, but you may want to hold off until you hear what Michelle is going to cover in her presentation.

Thanks again for joining us. 

And now I want to hand things off to our great Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Willie Banks, who will introduce a few other members of our steering committee. 

Willie, take it away!