UC Berkeley faculty members clash on free speech, controversial speakers

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Yukun Zhang/Staff

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UC Berkeley faculty members shared conflicting viewpoints on the issues of hate speech and white supremacy at a panel on free speech hosted by Chancellor Carol Christ on Friday.

The panel comes after Christ’s announcement of a “free speech year” on campus and multiple planned visits by controversial speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro. Shapiro, who was invited to campus by the Berkeley College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation, is set to speak at UC Berkeley on Sept. 14.

The law as defined by the Supreme Court does not allow public schools to restrain speech based on the viewpoint expressed, said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law and an expert on constitutional law, at the panel. He added that school policies targeting hate speech sometimes inadvertently target minorities and are inevitably struck down in the courts.

“All ideas and views can be expressed on campus, no matter how offensive,” Chemerinsky said at the panel.

john powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, said at the panel that he believed the Supreme Court was wrong in its decision. According to powell, the Supreme Court has previously supported harmful decisions, such as allowing women to be excluded from the workplace and allowing slavery.

powell added that he believes some speech directly harms people. The dismissal of the psychological harm caused by hate speech, he said, uses the same rationale that upheld segregation.

“I don’t think (free speech) is a defining issue in the country. I think the defining issue in the country is white supremacy,” powell said during the panel. “We are fighting a civil war, and the South is winning.”

Other speakers agreed with powell’s assessment of white supremacy in the United States, but they disagreed on whether campuses should restrict speech.

During the panel, Chemerinsky distinguished between questions of what the law is and what the law should be. If the campus restricted speech, Chemerinsky said, it would inevitably lose a subsequent lawsuit. Such a loss would cost the school in attorneys fees and damage UC Berkeley’s credibility, he added.

Those opposed to hate speech should confront it, said Steven Hayward, senior resident scholar at the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies. According to Hayward, preventing controversial speakers such as Coulter or Yiannopoulos from speaking on campus would harm the people that such an act would aim to help. Silent protests and counterprogramming are some of the various ways people should oppose hate speech, according to Hayward.

“The only way to make sure we’re protecting our speech for tomorrow is to protect the speech we don’t like today,” Chemerinsky said during the panel.

Contact Henry Tolchard at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @htolchard.