Office of the Chancellor

Free Speech in Our Scholarly Community

Sept. 28, 2017

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 UCI’s mission.

Universities exist to provide the conditions for hard thought and difficult debate so that new knowledge can be generated and 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 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.”

Free speech is often invoked to protect views that are considered wrong or disturbing. This is inevitable. No one tries to censor speech that is popular, comforting or supported by established authorities. But we sometimes forget that many of the views we take for granted were once considered harmful and deserving of censorship and punishment, including Galileo’s heliocentric model of the solar system, antislavery advocacy, Darwin’s challenge to biblical accounts of the origins of humankind, opposition to American war efforts, the teaching of socialism, civil rights protests, critiques of traditional societal norms, risqué or countercultural popular music, and a lot of modern literature.

We extend protections to controversial and even potentially harmful speech to create the conditions for innovative thinking – and because we have learned it is even more harmful to give officials the extraordinary (and inevitably abused) power to punish people for expressing views they do not like. 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 positions. Hearing offensive or even hateful viewpoints provides opportunities for those sentiments to be exposed, engaged and rebutted.

This is why we cannot and will not censor or punish people merely because they express ideas we do not like. We will not deny speakers access to campus venues because of their views. We will protect all members of the campus community and their invited guests and speakers from efforts to silence them through disruptive activities. At the same time, because no one has a right to be free from criticism, we will always ensure that members of the campus community can peacefully protest and express condemnation of views they detest.

Of course, freedom of speech is not and cannot be absolute. While there is no hate speech exception to First Amendment protections, 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 in order to protect against the obstruction or disruption of campus activities, but the campus is committed to ensuring the availability of places for speeches and protests.

These principles operate differently in formal teaching and research settings such as the classroom or the lab, where principles of academic freedom are linked to obligations of professional conduct and competence. Still, the university is committed in these settings to protecting the widest range of viewpoints in accord with the standards of scholarly inquiry and professional ethics. (To learn more about our policies and practices, please see freespeech.uci.edu.)

In addition to protecting free speech and academic freedom, 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 viewpoint 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. A scholarly community knows that all knowledge is provisional, that there can be no protected orthodoxies of opinion, that better ideas are always around the corner, and that we are as happy to be proven wrong as proven right. This is why we are committed to addressing disagreements through reasoned and sustained conversation, debate and the acquisition of new knowledge. The norms of our scholarly community also require us to speak out in support of each other when members of our community are subjected to hateful, discriminatory or 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 furthers the search for wisdom – the very purpose we sought to pursue when we decided to join this remarkable community.

I wish you all an enlightening year.

Fiat Lux,

Chancellor Howard Gillman