Regents approve changes to faculty code of conduct to protect faculty speech

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The UC Board of Regents unanimously approved changes to its faculty code of conduct Thursday, including new provisions protecting the freedom of faculty to express opinions regarding institutional matters.

Changes to UC Regents Policy 7401 would extend the freedom of UC faculty and staff to freely critique policies adopted by the administration without fear of administrative discipline. The adoption comes amid a series of lawsuits that raise concerns about the limits of freedom of expression for public employees.

“There’s the issue that this policy revision will affect employer-employee relations, but I don’t think that’s a legitimate concern,” said UC President Mark Yudof of the decision.

Minor amendments also included revising the anti-discrimination policy to include “gender” and “gender expression” as well as members of all uniformed services among the prohibited types of discrimination in employment.

Susan Carlson, vice provost for academic personnel, presented the amendment to the regents on Thursday and argued that the revision protecting free speech is necessary to encourage faculty participation in governance of the UC system by ensuring protection under the First Amendment.

“Foundational policies are not often changed unless absolutely necessary,” Carlson said. “Faculty involvement in the governance of the UC is incredibly important to our public mission, and we’re ensuring that this policy change gives our employees the right to express their opinions towards university policy without fear of negative ramifications.”

The issue of free speech protection for government employees became a contentious issue in 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Garcetti v. Ceballos, a case involving a Los Angeles district attorney, that the First Amendment does not prevent citizens from being disciplined for comments they make as public employees.

Joe Kiskis, vice chair of the Council of UC Faculty Associations, said that the decision did not present a problem for higher education until 2007, when UC Irvine professor Juan Hong brought up the issue in a 2007 U.S. District Court case.

In his lawsuit against university officials and the regents, Hong alleged that he had been denied a salary increase in 2004 due to his criticism of the hiring and promotion decisions within his department.

The District Court ruled in 2007 that Hong was not entitled to protection under the First Amendment because he made the comments as a public employee and not as a private citizen.

According to Kiskis, the court’s ruling in Hong’s appeal of the original decision left the question of the limits of academic expression unanswered. Before Hong’s appeal, Kiskis said faculty members believed they had the freedom to critique policies enacted by the university.

After the case, UC Davis professor Greg Pasternack, who chaired that campus’s committee of academic freedom, set out to revise university policy by proposing changes to the code of conduct. However, after the issue became entangled in several committees for the past two years, Pasternack lost track of his proposition and was surprised to hear about the regents’ decision.

“This is the greatest expansion of academic freedom made in a long time,” Pasternack said.

Contact Dennis Vidal at [email protected]. Follow Dennis Vidal on Twitter @vidaldennis.