ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

A Tale of Two Presidents

September 17, 2014 by Alex McHugh

When Yale President Peter Salovey addressed incoming students on the importance of free expression last month, it was a breath of fresh air. Many, however, were uncertain that his words would translate into action. President Salovey is proving them wrong. He handled the recent shake-up over a William F. Buckley, Jr. Program event exceedingly well.

That event featured a favorite of censors everywhere, the controversial feminist thinker Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Lauren Noble, founder of the Buckley Program, faced a great deal of pressure to alter the event, but did not budge. She noted that “[a]t the end of the day…President Salovey’s leadership on this issue is what matters, and his contribution has been very valuable.” He deserves our highest praise for remaining committed to free expression with multiple student groups and even a University chaplain calling for the University to force changes on the event.

UC Berkeley, once home to the “Free Speech Movement,” offers an ugly contrast, writ large in the recent message of UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

Although many have already commented on the worrying email Chancellor Dirks sent to the Berkeley campus, this remains an opportunity to reflect on just how stifling the climate on many campuses has become. And just how important rarities like President Salovey are.

First, there is the email itself. UC Berkeley’s Associate Chancellor Nils Gilman has answered criticism by saying that “[t]his was a request, not a rule or a requirement.” He went on to note that “it’s important that colleges and universities not shy away from discussions about ‘civility’ due to fears about how policies or ideas have been applied elsewhere.” His implication being: civility is a good thing to value and need not limit speech.

However, if the email aimed simply to promote civility generally as a “norm” on campus, why did Dirks purposefully place this discussion in the context of the history of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement? It would appear that his implication was very much that a standard of civility should demarcate the limits of free expression.

And where should that limit fall?

Well, it shouldn’t fall anywhere. Any formalized, stated standard of civility must be somewhat arbitrary. And arbitrariness, it could be said, is the antithesis of rights protection. This is not to say that civility doesn’t matter. Here’s the C. Vann Woodward Report, one of the most thoughtful defenses of free expression on campus, on the issue of civility:

No member of the community with a decent respect for others should use, or encourage others to use, slurs and epithets intended to discredit another’s race, ethnic group, religion, or sex. It may sometimes be necessary in a university for civility and mutual respect to be superseded by the need to guarantee free expression.  The values superseded are nevertheless important. …We have considered the opposing argument that behavior which violates these social and ethical considerations should be made subject to formal sanctions, and the argument that such behavior entitles others to prevent speech they might regard as offensive. Our conviction that the central purpose of the university is to foster the free access of knowledge compels us to reject both of these arguments…They rest upon the assumption that speech can be suppressed by anyone who deems it false or offensive. They deny what Justice Holmes termed “freedom for the thought that we hate.” They make the majority, or any willful minority, the arbiters of truth for all. If expression may be prevented, censored or punished, because of its content or because of the motives attributed to those who promote it, then it is no longer free.

Chancellor Dirks seems to have missed that key passage and, unfortunately, he’s not alone.

Too many inside academe want to change the rules. Whether motivated by a cynical desire to quiet detractors or a misguided quest for some imagined utopia of consensus, their actions are destroying the freedoms that make a messy, confusing, but powerful democracy of dissent worthwhile. We must work with and draw attention to those like President Salovey who remember that serious and important disagreements do not disappear when they are not discussed. Though they are rare, such leaders are bravely working to slow our descent into a closed and intolerant society. Academe needs more leaders like that.  


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September 19, 2014 - 7:03 AM |

Guess who said these words:  We’re asking that there be no, no restrictions on the content of speech save those provided by the courts. And that’s an enormous amount of freedom. And people can say things within that area of freedom which are not responsible. Now we’ve finally gotten into a position where we have to consider being responsible, because now we have the freedom within which to be responsible. And I’d like to say at this time I’m confident that the students and faculty at the University of California will exercise their freedom with the same responsibility the’ve shown in winning their freedom.” That would be from the victory speech of noted Free Speech skeptic Mario Savio… Civility is indeed the responsibility that comes with freedom of speech.

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