Who should define civility?

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SEPTEMBER 16, 2014

The naturally ambiguous definition of “civility” has sparked intense discourse on the UC Berkeley campus after Chancellor Nicholas Dirks sent an email Sept. 5 entitled “Civility and Free Speech.” In the email, Dirks stated that free speech and civility go hand-in-hand. When defining campus conduct, the administration should strive to be as clear as possible in its messages. Students must partake in the process of deciding the expected level of civility on campus and must continue to have the right to partake in actions that would be deemed uncivil by the administration.

The timing of this message, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, added to the sensitivity surrounding its reception. Students and faculty members, among others, took offense to Dirks’ email, viewing his assertion that courtesy is a necessary precondition to meaningful discourse as a form of censorship. Others took issue with the mention of the line between free speech and political advocacy, saying the email seemed to push back the boundaries of free speech.

The main issue with Dirk’s initial email — and his follow-up email “On Civility” — is its lack of clarity. An email sent to and aimed at the entire campus community must take pains to be free of ambiguity. Civility is subjective — the definition of civility varies from person to person and from side to side. We must ensure that the students’ definition of civility is not overshadowed by a top-down approach of the administration. When the definition is set by Dirks and the UC Office of the President — UC President Janet Napolitano requested that all UC chancellors issue such statements — a carte blanche is given to the administration regarding students’ right to exercise free speech. The university community — not the administration — should define civility.

To be clear, civility is a product of ensuring that we maintain a safe campus environment in which discussing different and opposing ideas is encouraged. Including civility in our campus code of conduct is appropriate, but linking civility to a precondition of free speech was inappropriate. Freedom of speech does not always need to be respectful, and disrespect does not necessarily lead to an unsafe campus.

It is important to remember past acts of what we would call “incivility” on our campus. It was uncivil when a student was assaulted on Sproul Plaza while tabling for a pro-Palestinian group April 1, 2013. It was uncivil when police used batons at the Nov. 9, 2011, Occupy Cal protest. These acts cross the boundaries of both civility and safety.

As students, we have witnessed or participated in political action on campus, ranging from flyering to sit-ins. The Free Speech Movement of 1964 involved a range of political discourse, from negotiations with administrators to more iconic moments of campus activism. Leaving the requirement of civility hanging above students’ heads without a clear definition takes away from students’ ability to continue the activism that now defines a large part of UC Berkeley’s history and legacy.

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SEPTEMBER 16, 2014