Email from Dirks asking for ‘civility’ in free speech sparks controversy

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An email sent Friday by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks to faculty, students and staff sparked controversy among some UC Berkeley faculty members after it called for politeness in campus discourse.

In the email, titled “Civility and Free Speech,” Dirks said “courteousness and respect” are needed for meaningful discourse.

Although campus faculty have expressed concerns about the email’s diction and message, Associate Chancellor Nils Gilman — who works as Dirks’ chief of staff — said UC President Janet Napolitano asked all UC chancellors to issue statements at the beginning of the academic year about free speech in the campus context.

“What the chancellor was doing was simply laying out what he believes and what the community generally concurs on as the virtue of humility to ground conversation,” Gilman said.

He added that the email was rooted in UC Berkeley’s Principles of Community, which call for “civility” in personal interactions.

Colleen Lye, a campus associate professor of English and co-chair of the UC Berkeley Faculty Association, said there has been a recent tendency for chancellors nationwide to use the term “civility” to justify restricting academic freedom.

“Enough faculty … would very much like to hear from the Chancellor as to his views on free speech, since it is his understanding of it as conveyed in the message that has caused some puzzlement locally and has become a news item nationally,” Lye said in an email.

Since Dirks sent the email, columnists, bloggers and reporters at publications including the Los Angeles Times and Inside Higher Ed have parsed and criticized his message, which he sent on the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement.

Gilman and campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof said Dirks’ email was meant to generate discourse about the meaning and relevance of the Free Speech Movement in a contemporary context. They stressed that Dirks was not dictating how people should express their beliefs but suggesting they consider the consequences of how those ideas are expressed.

“When there’s not a consensus, there are going to be controversies,” Gilman said. “That’s the nature of the beast. It is up to the community to set and debate decent behavior.”

But Leslie Salzinger, a campus associate professor in the gender and women’s studies department and faculty association board member, was disappointed with the generalizations she thought Dirks made in his recommendations for proper campus discourse.

“The biggest problem with civility is who gets to decide, and that is problematic,” Salzinger said.

Zoe Kleinfeld covers campus life. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @zoekleinfeld.