Discussion regarding David Barrows’ legacy parallels campus debate over free speech

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Jessica Doojphibulpol/Staff

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Today’s polarized debates over free speech are well-known, as is the historical role UC Berkeley has played in such discussions dating back to the Free Speech Movement. But few are aware of an older iteration of this debate tied to UC Berkeley’s past. Longtime professor, dean of the Graduate School, and eventually ninth president of the UC David Barrows and his eponymous hall have attracted controversy in recent years. Occasional op-eds in this paper discussing his legacy and challenging his suitability for the honor of remembrance that Barrows Hall physically enshrines. This debate revolves around the role Barrows played in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War and the legacy of imperialism. While that element of his life warrants further consideration elsewhere, I suggest here that examining Barrows’ stance on free speech not only enhances our understanding of his legacy, but also may provide interesting insight into the current iteration of contested speech.

The primary source for this discussion — a book titled “Inauguration of David Prescott Barrows as President of the University” includes several speeches Barrows made, but the relevant one here is “Inaugural Address.” Barrows centered his inaugural address on free speech, signifying its importance to him and offering guidelines on granting the university’s blessing to various types of speakers.

Barrows argued for a tiered model of free speech on campus, rejecting outright the notion that anyone is entitled to use the university as a forum as they want. He pointed out the difficult and arduous process for professors in attaining tenure, and then explained the relevance: those whom the university has accepted most fully into its ranks as faculty have a near-complete right to free speech from the lectern’s pulpit. This right requires displaying not only commendable speaking skills, but also level-headedness. One could attain faculty status and receive the approval of the university by demonstrating that one’s speech will not threaten the reputation of the campus (among other things). Until achieving that level, the professor’s free speech is not guaranteed by the university and controversial statements made as an employee may warrant repercussions. Barrows viewed free speech as something that must be limited to be preserved when coming from representatives of the institution.

Barrows did not explicitly discuss whether (or to what degree) students have free speech protected by the campus, but we can reasonably extrapolate what his views may have been. A key element of his perspective is the difference between what speech the government is obligated to protect under the First Amendment and how universities may govern their speech. It is plausible that Barrows would have limited the degree to which students could freely express their views in situations in which the university was understood to support them. This applies today — for example, no one is entitled to wander up to the lectern during class and start sharing their uninvited views. Robert Post, until recently the dean of Yale Law School, recently espoused a similar distinction (and, indeed, pointed out similar restrictions) in a response to Dean Erwin Chemerinsky’s recent article asserting that the university is subject to the same level of free speech protection as that of the government. A central question here is whether the university’s free speech policies must have the same aim as the government’s: must we treat all ideas as equally valid and worthy of contribution to the collective debate, or do the twin goals of generating and transmitting knowledge necessarily include filtering the flow of information?

Our recent experience with conflict over free speech have centered around individuals who did not claim to represent the university, either as faculty or students. The free speech of professors today seems to be a less pressing issue. It is primarily the guests of student groups who sparked this debate. Barrows addressed the question of guest speakers as well, basing his approach on the model for academics. Given that faculty earned the right to university-backed free speech through years of work, the same path was obviously not an option for guests. Barrows, however, argued that before granting the right to speak in a university forum, the campus administration must carefully screen would-be speakers. Instead of the drawn-out process for faculty to demonstrate their competency and suitability, administrators would vet potential speakers to ensure they posed little risk to the university’s reputation as a credible, serious institution for research and learning.

This solution poses obvious problems: the administration gains complete control over who may speak without any check on this power. Policies to bar damaging speech today could be misapplied to stifle legitimate debate tomorrow, with little recourse for those censored. Creative solutions may exist — perhaps a committee incorporating a range of voices representing the university more broadly, but that is for another time. For now, let’s console ourselves that this issue has occupied a prominent place in campus life for a century. The more recent discussions over Barrows’ legacy — and by extension, the appropriateness of his eponymous hall — benefit from exploring important, if little-known, elements of his biography regardless of whether they paint him in a better or worse light. Both debates should continue, and regardless of our prior beliefs and political convictions, an open discussion of the issues at hand will yield better results than angry tirades.

Jeffrey Myers is a UC Berkeley student.