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Recently, free speech was on the chopping block at UC campuses across the state. At the direction of President Mark Yudof, the President’s Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion investigated anti-Semitic hate speech at UC Berkeley. The council recommended that cultural competency training be required at all UC campuses and current provisions of harassment and nondiscrimination clearly define hate speech and seek to prohibit it on campus. But President Yudof, a law professor and First Amendment scholar, could not bring himself to endorse recommendations prohibiting hate speech and compromising fundamental free speech rights. It is a matter of civil rights, acts of discrimination versus civil liberties and free speech.

Jewish students, expressing opposition to the report’s recommendations, applauded Yudof when he responded in a letter, “I believe our current policies may go as far as they can, given constitutional limitations.” He added, “I am a vigorous defender of free speech rights. While hurtful speech may make that goal difficult to achieve at times, the answer is not to restrict speech, but rather to see that all our community members feel supported.” Over 2,200 Jewish, Arab, Muslim and Palestinian students, faculty and alumni expressed opposition to the council’s recommendations.

Our country has paid dearly for our fundamental right to speak freely, as hate speech increases, creating hostile environments on university campuses across this nation. In 1990, 75 U.S. colleges and universities instituted bans on hate speech and by 1991 that number grew to over 300. However, our courts have prohibited public colleges and universities from instituting bans on free speech based on content; a prohibition that does not apply to private universities.

At UC Riverside, in March of this year, the word “terrorists” was written on an Israeli flag belonging to a Jewish student organization. According to a campus spokesman, someone scribbled the word “terrorists” in the white field at the center of the Star of David on the flag. Chancellor Tim White said, “Such an action is antithetical to all we stand for at UCR. We are a campus that expects among its members a proper respect for others across national, gender, ethnic, faith and political boundaries, among others.” He added, “Such behavior diminishes us all, and we have zero tolerance for it.” Destruction of property and physical threats are crimes and not protected under free speech laws.

During Black History Month in 2010, UC San Diego students used racial slurs and misogynistic stereotypes of black people while participating in what was deemed a “Compton Cookout.” During that same year, a noose found its way into the Geisel Library at UCSD, a swastika was carved into a student’s dorm room door at UC Davis and several of the symbols started appearing in a number of locations on campus and at UC Berkeley. At UC Merced, students posted a cartoon video ridiculing students requesting Chicano Studies as a minor. Also at Davis, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center was defaced with derogatory terms. Yudof, in response to the council’s report, said the incidents are quite simply the worst acts of racism and intolerance he’s seen on college campuses in 20 years and has vowed to deal with the underlining causes.

President Yudof’s words acknowledge that free speech cannot be carved from opinions that shape what is acceptable in this country, despite how hurtful. It is also why public education must provide a forum where views and opinions can be heard, explored, supported or refuted. If we do not learn to engage each other and our differences in a setting that promotes diversity, how then are we to achieve tolerance in the world beyond university confines?

UC Berkeley freshman Katherine Orr encountered five students in military fatigues carrying what appeared to be rifles. They stopped students and asked if they were Jewish mimicking Israeli soldiers interrogating Palestinians along the West Bank. The Israeli flag flew overhead with the Star of David paired with a Nazi swastika. Orr went on to say, “as much as I hate ‘hate speech,’ we should not suppress it. It’s a public university, and we should protect our free speech.” She described the anti-Israel protest as “politically correct anti-Semitism.” To suggest that hate speech does not hurt denies reality; it is emotional and deeply felt, but it provides an alternative to violence and offers an opportunity to grow, to learn and become a better neighbor and citizen by engaging in meaningful dialogue.

Those wishing to limit free speech because it hinders a student’s education fail to recognize that a student’s ability to contend with hate speech, in a peaceful manner is a critical component of a student’s education. Respect and tolerance are the cornerstones of a free society and students must be exposed to free speech if they are to learn to engage and respect the differences. Our public colleges and universities must serve as a model if a peaceful and diverse society is to flourish. Speech must be free to respond to intractable ideologues and religious zealots.