The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Chaos on UC Campuses: Chancellors Hexter and Dirks Show Principled Courage

February 6, 2017 by Michael B. Poliakoff

Chaos ensued at UC Berkeley this week, following a planned speech by provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Instead of rescinding the invitation, UC-Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks used Yiannapoulos’s impending visit as a teachable moment to stand by the principles of free expression. Unfortunately, cooler heads did not prevail—violent protests erupted at Berkeley, forcing police to evacuate Yiannapoulos before the planned event could take place. In response, the Chancellor released a statement in strong support of free speech: “UC Berkeley condemns in the strongest possible terms the actions of individuals who invaded the campus, infiltrated a crowd of peaceful students and used violent tactics to close down the event. We deeply regret that the violence unleashed by this group undermined the First Amendment rights of the speaker as well as those who came to lawfully assemble and protest his presence.”

The situation follows a similar issue at UC─Davis, where Interim Chancellor Ralph Hexter firmly upheld the right of free expression last month when he decried the protests that led to the abrupt cancellation of a scheduled presentation by Yiannopoulos and controversial “Pharma Bro” CEO Martin Shkreli. “Our community is founded on principles of respect for all views, even those that we personally find repellent,” Dr. Hexter observed. “As I have stated repeatedly, a university is at its best when it listens to and critically engages opposing views, especially ones that many of us find upsetting or even offensive.”

These university leaders have it exactly right. ACTA calls on all campuses nationwide to adopt the Chicago Principles of Free Expression or similar commitments to free speech and free expression and to live by them. In these turbulent times, higher education leaders must safeguard free speech by proactively warning students of the consequences of disrupting scheduled events and enforcing those rules.  Sadly, they must also be ready to call on campus police and city police to ensure that the dialogue and debate on which education depends do not fall victim to mob rule.  


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