Last week, I had the pleasure of attending an event in Washington, DC, sponsored by the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement titled, “Speech Matters: The Future of Free Expression on Campus.” The day consisted of three panels: “Columnists Corner,” “Speech Dilemmas in the Digital World,” and “Furthering Civil Discourse in Higher Education.”
“Columnists Corner” was moderated by Tamara Keith of NPR and consisted of Frank Bruni and Bret Stephens from the New York Times and Ruth Marcus from the Washington Post. Although the participants mildly disagreed about the severity of the free speech crisis on college campuses and where to draw the line on certain types of speech, they all agreed that civic discourse was alarmingly weak and that students, as well as the general public, need to learn how to disagree constructively. The group brought an interesting perspective as members of the press. Each panelist had felt the effects of political polarization, receiving hate mail or verbal abuse online for expressing their views, and they all understood the crucial role that higher education plays in forming future citizens and leaders.
It was encouraging to see the University of California System leading the discussion on free speech, especially following the 2017 protests at the University of California–Berkeley. The National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement is a recent addition to the system’s programming and includes all of the system’s campuses. Representatives from each campus gathered at the University of California’s Washington Center for the event. If the University of California continues to develop programming that emphasizes civil discourse and protects the freedom of expression on campus, it will be on the right track to produce excellent leaders for tomorrow.