UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and UC President Janet Napolitano discussed free speech on college campuses and how administrators should respond to controversial events at a moderated interview hosted by the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Monday.
The program was part of the club’s Ethics and Accountability series, sponsored by the Charles Travers Family. Napolitano interviewed Chemerinsky in light of the release of “Free Speech on Campus,” a book co-authored by the dean.
While teaching at UC Irvine, Chemerinsky co-taught a seminar on free speech with UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman, the other author of the book. Chemerinsky said during the event that they began each class by polling students on court cases and issues regarding free speech and found the students were “overwhelmingly” on the side of punishing offensive speech and were “remarkably trusting” of campus officials.
“(Students) were taught bullying is wrong, and they internalized the message,” Chemerinsky said at the event. “But they had little sense of the history of speech or the consequences of having it restricted.”
Both Chemerinsky and Gillman serve as advisory board co-chairs for the UC system’s newly created National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, which aims to advance research, education and advocacy. Chemerinsky said during the event that he was “stunned” by how little civics knowledge UC Irvine undergraduate students possessed and is “thrilled” to advance knowledge with the center.
Katie Doyle, an attorney who attended the event, asked Chemerinsky if students have a right to limit public speech on campus, given the cost of tuition and their position as what she described as “consumers of education.”
While Chemerinsky said Doyle’s argument was “clever,” he said, ultimately, that the campus has an “obligation” to facilitate speech, which students do not have a right to limit. He did, however, say security costs could be a plausible reason to cancel a controversial speaker’s visit, but only as a last resort.
“All ideas and views can be expressed, no matter how offensive,” Chemerinsky said at the event. “The campus (has) to find ways to create inclusivity that are consistent with that. The best remedy for speech we don’t like is more speech.”
At the event, Chemerinsky said Chancellor Carol Christ made “exactly the right call in ensuring speech and safety” earlier this year by spending $600,000 for security during conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s campus visit. But he questioned to what end administrators must spend to protect speech and said this issue would “undoubtedly” turn into a court case.
He also said in his talk that it is the responsibility of campus officials to respond to criticism but not to censor. He cited a letter sent to the law school community after a flyer of Alan Dershowitz was found with a swastika drawn on Dershowitz’s forehead.
“It’s a confusing issue,” said Katie Doyle’s mother, Mary Cooper-Doyle, who also attended the event. “There’s a conflict between individual rights and the overarching right of people to speak their mind. … If you don’t like what they have to say, then you say something. The antidote is to say something else — to have communication.”