A mob of protesters at UC Berkeley recently busted in windows, lit fires, assaulted innocent bystanders, and carried out other violent and lawless acts in service of a single objective: to stop the utterance of words.
When campus police canceled the scheduled speaker, the principle that separates democracy from autocracy – that persuasion, rather than force, is the currency of power – was flipped on its head.
While some blame the lawlessness at Berkeley on outside agitators, that is only part of the story. More troublingly, the episode is an outgrowth of creeping authoritarian tendencies that have gripped our universities, distorted their missions and sapped their power to equip students with the critical thinking skills needed for thoughtful citizenship and success in a 21st-century workforce.
The prologue to the Feb 1 events was years in the making: the spread of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” designed to shelter students from particular ideas, or the readiness of administrators to withdraw invitations to commencement speakers if anyone objected to the speaker’s opinions. California universities, in particular, have imposed a number of speech-restricting policies whose clear message is that some points of view are not to be expressed on campus – precisely the attitude of the Berkeley protesters.
These campus anti-speech policies include charging student groups exorbitant security fees to host speakers, like the $10,000 Berkeley originally demanded of its College Republican Club; designating “free speech zones” where universities respect the First Amendment in a confined area while claiming free rein to censor elsewhere; and instituting “bias reporting systems” that encourage students to police one another and faculty for signs of biased thinking.
Universities justify these and other speech restrictions in the name of supportive learning environments. Similar rationales, of course, were invoked for much of the 20th century to suppress antiwar demonstrations and mute speech advocating for gender and racial equality. Then as now, the effect of stifling speech is to impoverish the marketplace of ideas and sow intolerance for minority-held views.
Yet there are signs the pendulum may be swinging back in favor of free speech. Since 2015, 18 universities have reaffirmed their commitment to “a completely free and open discussion of ideas” by adopting what has become known as the University of Chicago Statement on Free Expression. Of particular relevance, the statement describes a university’s “solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”
In the wake of the riots at Berkeley, California has an opportunity to take a leading role in restoring the primacy of free speech in higher education. To that end, I have introduced a resolution in the state Assembly for California’s public universities to adopt the University of Chicago Statement on Free Expression.
Adoption of the statement would reflect a bipartisan consensus. UC President Janet Napolitano, formerly in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, has called for “more speech” at universities after raising concerns that freedom of speech has given way to freedom from speech. Obama himself has warned that on college campuses “the unwillingness to hear other points of view can be as unhealthy on the left as on the right.”
Freedom of speech is at the foundation of our democracy, and universities, of all places, should be lively environments where First Amendment freedoms flourish. Berkeley was the birthplace of the free speech movement in the 1960s, whose principles are now enshrined in the University of Chicago Statement on Free Expression.
California can renew its commitment to those principles, and once again become a leader in the cause of campus freedom, by adopting the statement for the greatest university system in the world.
Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Roseville, represents the 6th District and is a member of the Assembly Higher Education Committee. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.