With the proliferation of protests on college campuses, University of California President Janet Napolitano announced plans Thursday to launch a national center to study First Amendment issues in Washington, D.C.
The National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement plans to create a fellowship program, drawing from leading public policy thinkers, legal scholars, journalists and social scientists. The fellows would research issues surrounding the First Amendment, such as whether student views on free speech are changing and what role social media and political polarization play in shaping perspectives.
According to UC Office of the President spokesperson Dianne Klein, the location of the center in Washington, D.C. helps position the university as a national leader in the areas of free speech and civic engagement. Funding for the center will come from the UC presidential endowment and private philanthropy.
Dean of UC Berkeley School of Law Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, chancellor of UC Irvine, will serve as co-chairs of the center’s advisory board. Other members of the board include U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, President and CEO of The Education Trust John King Jr. and Washington Post columnist George Will, among others.
“We defend the rights of the speakers to speak, even if we disagree with them. We protect their rights because next time, if we want to speak, we have the right to exercise our free speech too,” said Stephen Rohde, civil rights and civil liberties lawyer. “We need to find mechanisms so that people can exercise free speech and have a campus that is inclusive.”
The issue of free speech took new urgency when violent protests at UC Davis and UC Berkeley shut down appearances by right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos. Confrontations have also occurred on other UC campuses, such as this month’s incident in which UC Santa Cruz campus police arrested three students for disrupting a College Republicans meeting.
“It is human nature to want to suppress speech that you think is dangerous or harmful,” said Geoffrey R. Stone, professor at the University of Chicago Law School and a member of the center’s advisory board. “The instinct to do this is perfectly natural, but what the First Amendment does is restrain the temptation of people seeing what is in their self-interest.”
The center’s fellowship program will also aim to educate students about the First Amendment through seminars and mentorship.
The center will announce its first class of fellows in January and will provide the fellows with a stipend to study free speech and civic engagement issues for up to a year. The stipend also covers a weeklong residence at a UC campus in order to conduct research.
“For years now we have seen ongoing heated debates about the contours of free speech and the defensibility of traditional free speech notions on today’s campuses,” Gillman said in an email. “The purpose of the center is to bring together outstanding thinkers from many backgrounds and disciplines in order to understand contemporary debates about … free speech.”