Recently, the President of the University of California, Janet Napolitano, took to the Boston Globe to write an op-ed that seemed, from its title — “It’s time to free speech on campus again” — to be a scathing indictment of the systemic suppression of differing views on the UC campuses. Unfortunately, on closer inspection of the body of the piece, you realize that this is simply another well-crafted defense of censorship masquerading as a defense of free speech and the First Amendment. The piece offers no condemnation of the number of times persons expressing right-of-center political opinions on campus have been physically assaulted and have had their personal property damaged, often with no disciplinary action initiated by the university against the perpetrator. It reaffirms the university’s commitment to a caricature of free speech with vaguely defined exceptions based on a very flawed understanding of the law on the part of the president.
During the US v. Schenck case, the Supreme Court decided that Charles Schenck, the secretary of the Socialist Party of America, could be convicted under the Espionage Act for writing and distributing a pamphlet that expresses his opposition to the draft in World War I. It was in this case that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes made the “shouting fire in a crowded theater” remark that Napolitano refers to as a limit to free speech in her piece. Unfortunately, she overlooks the fact that this remark was what lawyers call a “dictum,” or a supplementary opinion of a judge that holds no binding authority. In fact, the actual ruling of the court stated that Schenck was jailed because his actions posed a “clear and present danger” to a nation at war. What possible connection could a case like this have to the obstruction of the free expression of ideas on a college campus? In any event, this case was effectively overturned by the Supreme Court in the 1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio case, in which the court clarified that the only form of speech exempt from First Amendment protection is when such speech “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” This is an important distinction because people on one end of the political spectrum often believe that the expression of views on the opposite end is akin to “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” Fortunately, the Supreme Court has shed a lot of light on this issue since that infamous quote from Justice Holmes and the only person left in the dark is Napolitano.
The president goes on to say that speech “designed to personally intimidate or harass falls outside First Amendment protections, as outlined by the Supreme Court.” This, as I have mentioned, is an explicitly false statement and serves as a definition that has been exploited by various left-leaning campus authorities to interpret the words “intimidation” and “harassment” far too broadly to censor disconcerting speech on campus. The only exceptions to First Amendment protections that are relevant in a public college setting are incitements to criminal acts or riots. I think it is safe to say that conservatives and Donald Trump supporters chalking slogans or tabling at Sproul Plaza do not fit that bill.
President Napolitano continues her mental gymnastics by deceptively defining “safe spaces” as “different types of student centers and student activities.” This is a clear attempt to portray safe spaces as inclusive hubs where people can come together, but unfortunately, such a portrayal is at odds with reality. Safe spaces are created with the sole purpose of including persons of one viewpoint while excluding or marginalizing proponents of opposing viewpoints. Hence, they are part of a lamentable culture on campus that allows students to be shielded from the tyranny of different ideas and intellectual discourse. They go against the very idea of the university, which was founded as a hub of intellectual diversity and debate. Today, they are hotbeds of political indoctrination and seek conformity of opinion instead of the mere tolerance of it.
The trend of creative definitions continues with President Napolitano stating that the concept of trigger warnings “helps students appreciate what they are learning.” The reality, as usual, opposes that statement. Trigger warnings serve to alert students that the ideas they are about to encounter may cause them emotional distress or inner turmoil. As a result, most students react to content preceded by trigger warnings with contempt, abhorrence and outright hostility.
Recently, the dean of students at the University of Chicago addressed a letter to each of its students that was a sight to soothe the sore eyes of everyone who values free speech protection. This letter criticized safe spaces and trigger warnings in the most unambiguous terms and said, “You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.” Napolitano, however, took exception to this letter and stated that it “seemed to support free speech Darwinism,” a term whose meaning continues to elude me. If it means that certain ideas need to pass through the stern tests of facts and rationality, the president is objecting to the very objective of an institute of higher learning. It seems more likely though that Napolitano is using social Darwinism, a 19th century movement, to caricature opposition to safe spaces and trigger warnings as predatory and inhumane. Needless to say, any such comparison is tenuous at best.
Despite all of my criticisms, this article, at the very least, showed that the university cared enough about this issue to write about it. But this is not enough. When censorship is the norm on a college campus that once championed free speech, the administrators need to stand up for the free expression even if they personally disagree with much of what is being discussed. This is not the pitiable lament of a litter of kittens who would be silenced if the university chose to ignore them. It is a demand from empowered students who will stand up for their rights as long as they are on campus. Napolitano’s piece is flawed but it is a step in the right direction. Now is the time to follow through on her promises. It is easy to pen down an ode to free speech but, at the end of the day, actions speak louder than op-eds.
Rudra Reddy is a UC Berkeley student.