UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky spoke about free speech on college campuses to a crowd of students, alumni and other Berkeley community members Tuesday evening.
In his talk at Morrison Library, Chemerinsky addressed what the First Amendment protects and to whom it applies. As an example, Chemerinsky pointed to how the First Amendment only applies to government but not to private entities like the National Football League.
The event, which was part of an annual Constitution Day event organized by campus librarians, had been rescheduled from Sept. 26 to Tuesday evening after the event dates for Milo Yiannopoulos’s now-canceled “Free Speech Week” event were announced, according to Jean Ferguson, chair of the Free Speech Movement Educational Programs Committee, which hosted the event.
The three types of unprotected speech relevant to college campuses include incitement of illegal activity, “true threats” and harassment, according to Chemerinsky. What’s not included on the list, he said, is hate speech, which is therefore protected.
“So many people have asked me what the line between hate speech and free speech is. There isn’t a line,” Chemerinsky said.
Disruption, however, is a separate issue for him. While the “best remedy” for hate speech is more speech, Chemerinsky said, disrupting a speaker is not protected by the First Amendment.
Chancellor Carol Christ, who opened the talk, expressed similar opinions, explaining some of the challenges the campus faced with outside groups using UC Berkeley as a “stage” and with decisions about the time, place and rules.
“Obviously … we don’t want to see the disruption of … our mission: education of students,” Christ said.
Not everyone who attended, however, agreed with Chemerinsky’s ideas, such as Revolution Books employee Gina Lee, who attended the talk. Lee criticized the campus for creating a platform to invite speakers like Yiannopoulos, conservative political commentator Ann Coulter and Breitbart editor Steve Bannon to campus for Free Speech Week.
“The university should have stood up to that and said, ‘no, we don’t want them to come here and spew hateful, violent speech and program,’” Lee said.
Some also expressed concerns about outside groups coming to campus. Berkeley resident Louise Francis, who also attended the talk, said she was worried about the potential for “certain groups” to “hold the campus hostage” in the name of the First Amendment.
“Violence is never protected by the Constitution,” Chemerinsky said during the event. “Safety has to be paramount.”