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‘Chilling of free speech’: Recommendations to qualify department statements criticized by faculty

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While the report does not recommend that departments stop issuing political statements altogether, some workgroup members felt that it did not go far enough.


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OCTOBER 20, 2022

A UC Berkeley workgroup released a draft report detailing its recommendations on how departments should issue and attribute political statements, drawing criticism from the Berkeley Faculty Association, or BFA, as a “chilling of free speech.”

The draft report, released in May by the Joint Senate-Administration Workgroup on the Role of The University and its Units in Political and Social Action, recommends that departments make statements “sparingly” and only related to their area of study. It added that departments should include signatures on statements and provide dissenting department members space to air their views on the same platform.

The working group was created in part because several departments from UC campuses released statements about “events in the middle east,” according to a charge letter from Chancellor Carol Christ. According to campus history professor and BFA chair James Vernon, the workgroup was formed in response to campus departments showing support for Palestine in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including campus’s Gender and Women’s Studies department

“They’re bizarrely trying to create an understanding of the campus as politically neutral. … The culture wars that have been coursing through American politics for the past decade, especially the last five to six years, have made campus a real target of the alt-right,” Vernon said. “The administration basically wants to try and neutralize those attacks so that it can’t be identified as a campus full of wacky socialists who are corrupting the young minds of Californians.”

The recommendations have yet to be finalized, and will not become policy instead they are intended to provide guidance for departments, according to workgroup co-chairs Diana Harvey and Mary Ann Smart. Systemwide recommendations also exist to guide departmental speech.

In a statement released Sept. 22, the BFA called the draft report “procedurally disturbing” and “conceptually confused.”

The BFA found fault in the divergence of the workgroup’s definition of “political speech” from the traditional definition used by the university. The word “political” is conventionally understood within the UC system to refer to speech that addresses electoral politics, according to a letter addressed to the UC Academic Senate from Ty Alper, the former chair of the University Committee on Academic Freedom.

However, the draft report concluded that it is impossible to distinguish political statements from nonpolitical statements.

“What the Berkeley report is doing is generalizing away from electoral politics to a much vaguer, broader understanding of what political action and speech is,” Vernon said. “That’s something we think is deeply problematic especially when the campus itself feels free to make statements that could be considered political in its own terms.”

The BFA also raised concerns regarding the addition of signatures on department statements, noting the signatures could put faculty at risk of being targeted by those who disagree with their point of view, especially when the topic is politically contentious.

It added that this could cause tension between junior and senior members of a department, as those with less power and seniority may feel pressure to agree with a statement to avoid harm to their career.

While the report does not recommend that departments stop issuing political statements altogether, some workgroup members felt that it did not go far enough.

“I respectfully dissent from its conclusion that departments or schools may make statements on ‘controversial issues,’ ” said Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky in the draft report. “I do not believe that departments or schools as entities have the authority to do this or should do this.”

Vernon noted that the BFA agrees that departments should create a “deliberative and transparent” process for political statements to be made.

The workgroup plans to deliver a final report by the end of November after a period of open comment ending late October, according to the draft report.

“We’re basically in a wait and see mode at the moment to see what comes out of the period of this consultation we’re in,” Vernon said.

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OCTOBER 22, 2022