Perhaps free speech isn’t in a crisis but it is certainly in limbo — especially at California’s public universities. In the past year we have witnessed student and community-led uproar around the respective appearances of conservative commentators Ben Shapiro and Ann Coulter and right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley, a school that was home to the free speech movement of the 1960s.
The uproar is understandable — we live in the Trump era, one where long-standing political and racial tensions have neared a boiling point and reactionary responses seem the most effective means of eliciting change. But it has also become costly. Berkeley had to spend in excess of $1 milion to ensure safety and allow for speakers like Coulter and Steve Bannon during their so-called “Free Speech Week,” which was cancelled due to backlash, and Shapiro’s appearance last September alone cost the university an estimated $600,000 in added security despite protests being largely peaceful. This has made the consideration of having these speakers on college campuses a lot more daunting and made the universities’ view on the age-old right to free speech evermore murky in the public eye.
The UC hopes to clear this up with their launching of the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, a center “charged with helping educational institutions and communities better understand, guarantee and facilitate free speech,” according to the press release. On Thursday, Feb. 8, the center introduced its inaugural class of 10 fellows, comprised of students, scholars and analysts who plan to explore “the intersection of diversity and free speech, protests over police practices and challenges to safeguard the 1st Amendment amid today’s polarized politics,” per the Los Angeles Times. A couple members of the center will also work to develop curricula and toolkits aimed toward helping incoming college students better understand issues surrounding free speech and help campus leadership handle free speech-related politics.
The venture is a unique one, but as ill-fated as it is ambitious. Though it is reasonable to suggest that, in the midst of the unrest over free speech, the university must work to re-establish a sense of order, giving 10 people the power to reconsider how to deal with issues surrounding free speech is a considerably dangerous undertaking at worst and a cipher at best. Free speech, despite its apparent convolution today, is a pretty straightforward concept. The right is a double-edged sword, granting the same platform to bigots and hatemongers as it does to more level-headed individuals, while also allowing the discussion of any ideas, no matter how contentious, which is a necessity for being able to resolve conflict and enact change peacefully. Working to adjust this definition in response to system-wide frustrations threatens to further complicate it and potentially abridge students’ rights to their political beliefs — no matter how misinformed.
There is a chance that this isn’t what the center hopes to do. The few articles covering its launch have posited the center more as a think-tank for protecting free speech in this contentious political environment, rather than an effort aimed toward redefinining what constitutes it. Still, the problem with creating a center around free speech is it implies that a group will receive the power to impede on long-established rights. Thus far, the center has done little to quell this concern, with no help whatsoever from UC President Janet Napolitano’s fall 2017 op-ed announcing plans for the center, where she wrote, “The time has come to explore in a thoughtful, deliberative way the state of free speech at our nation’s colleges and universities, students’ once and future relationship with the First Amendment.” It’s a statement that reads as if the recent political climate on campuses warrants further limitations on how free speech can be used, and that students’ loud resistance against figures like Yiannopoulos is the justification.
If this is not the case, then this center seems little more than an elaborate photo-op, posing as a means to address the recurring issues surrounding free speech on campus yet serving very little in the way of fixing them. If the board opts to take a theoretical approach to analyzing the state of free speech, it would do little more than establish what is already known: Free speech is no longer being treated as the sacred value it once was. If it aims to do more, it is a step toward the broader erosion of these freedoms.
There is a way this could work, of course. If the center focused on calculating statistics on how often free speech has been restricted on campuses, systematically reviewing every public university in the country for scale, and then reconciled this data with student testimony and anecdotal evidence, it could be a useful tool for understanding the extent to which free speech is at risk on campuses.
Likewise, the center could develop a better understanding of how effective speakers are in swaying opinion. There is an argument to be made that the more that extremist ideas are exposed in public as nothing more than baseless ideology, the more easily they can be discredited, as opposed to allowing them to fester in the dark without facing a counterargument.
For a university to fulfill its purpose, the campus must serve as a forum where ideas can be debated freely, and thus subjected to rigorous intellectual examination. Whether the center will serve to affirm this is yet to be seen. However, its current existence is troubling, seeming as either a hollow attempt to fix the UC’s bad optics in its relationship to free speech without the intent to actually protect that right, or as a potential force of further eroding the right on which our democracy is predicated.