Next Thursday, the University of California Board of Regents will meet to discuss declaring a new right for students and faculty — the right not to be upset by the speech of others. The proposed “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance” starts off by proclaiming the virtues of “[f]ree expression and the open exchange of ideas” as well as “inclusion and academic freedom.” In the very next paragraph, the statement then says that free speech only works as long as it matches their criteria for “inclusion and academic freedom” (via Newsalert):
The University of California is committed to protecting its bedrock values of respect, inclusion, and academic freedom. Free expression and the open exchange of ideas – principles enshrined in our national and state Constitutions – are part of the University’s fiber. So, too, is tolerance, and University of California students, faculty, and staff must respect the dignity of each person within the UC community.
Intolerance has no place at the University of California. We define intolerance as unwelcome conduct motivated by discrimination against, or hatred toward, other individuals or groups. It may take the form of acts of violence or intimidation, threats, harassment, hate speech, derogatory language reflecting stereotypes or prejudice, or inflammatory or derogatory use of culturally recognized symbols of hate, prejudice, or discrimination.
So much for “freedom of expression.” Acts of violence and intimidation are already crimes, and threats and harassment get handled administratively or criminally on college campuses. The UC regents don’t need to issue this directive to deal with those issues. The point of this is to grant the UC campus administrations the right to regulate speech, and to bar any speech that the regents and administrators don’t like. The proposed statement by the regents frame this in a new asserted “right” to be free from ideas that might offend:
Everyone in the University community has the right to study, teach, conduct research, and work free from acts and expressions of intolerance. The University will respond promptly and effectively to reports of intolerant behavior and treat them as opportunities to reinforce the University’s Principles Against Intolerance.
Gee, will those “opportunities” get referred to the Ministry of Intolerance Toward Tolerance? Who gets to decide what is offensive, and what is merely “the free exchange of ideas in keeping with the principles of academic freedom and free speech,” as the next paragraph supposedly assures? The regents? The deans? Faculty? Or just anyone on a campus who decides that, say, a pro-life rally is intolerant to women’s rights? Each snitch-and-bitch tip will at the very least tie up students, faculty, and administrators while someone tries to figure out whether an opinion merits the full weight of the University’s Principles Against Intolerance.
How much money will this cost the UC system when people figure out that the process is the punishment, and start griping away to kneecap their bêtes noires du jour? Isn’t California broke enough as it is?
Eugene Volokh, a tenured law professor at UCLA, counts up all the ways in which this proposed policy violates the First Amendment and the principles it asserts in shutting down dissent:
Articulating a view that there are cultural (or even biological) differences between ethnic and racial groups in various fields — condemned by the authority of the University, without regard to the arguments for or against the particular assertion. It’s just an up-front categorical rule; whatever you want to say along these lines, we don’t want to hear it, we don’t care what your arguments are, we’ll condemn it, and faculty and students have a right not to hear it. Even “depicting” such a view, whatever that means, is “intolerant” and “has no place at the University.”
Saying that illegal aliens (or noncitizens who are legally here) ought not be appointed to be, say, the student member of the Board of Regents — likewise condemned. And this isn’t limited to situations where the speaker is a participant in a selection decision, which the participants are obligated to make in a nondiscriminatory way. It equally applies to, say, a student newspaper that condemns the appointment of noncitizens to leadership positions. (For a recent controversy along these lines in a local city, which could equally arise at a university, see this story about two illegal aliens named as volunteers to city commissions in an L.A.-area town.)
And these are just examples. The policy obviously extends to the other categories traditionally joined to race, ethnicity, and disability, such as sex, sexual orientation, or religion.
Defending traditional exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage, by arguing that same-sex couples aren’t as good at raising children as opposite-sex couples? (I suspect that view is wrong, but we can only know it’s wrong if people are able to freely debate it.) Discussing purported differences in temperament, cognition, and more between men and women? Sharply criticizing certain religious denominations, and suggesting that people who are genuinely committed to those religious denominations are misguided or morally reprehensible?
Presumably all that, no less than statements about the disabled, is likewise “intolerance” that “has no place at the University of California” and that violates students’ and faculty members’ rights to be “free from … expression or intolerance.” You can’t “depict or articulat[e]” such ideas here — we’re a university!
Volokh goes into other significant points as well, so be sure to read it all, but there are two larger points to be made. First, the UC system is run by the state of California. As such, it is public space, not a private institution. Government can no more restrict the content of expression on college campuses than it can on sidewalks or parks or any other public spaces. Of course, that requires students or faculty to challenge these kinds of “principles” in court, an expensive undertaking not just in money but in educational access, too. Most will just put their heads down and get through their four years, or get through until tenured, a more and more difficult status to attain in Academia. Volokh notes that he can speak out safely, having already earned tenure, a statement which may demonstrate the level of intimidation that already exists on speech.
The second issue is more basic. If the University of California cannot abide heterodox speech and ideas — indeed, if they feel so insecure about their own preferred narratives that they cannot successfully defend them in open debate — why should California spend billions of dollars keeping their doors open? If these universities cannot do anything more than indoctrinate people on their narrow and fragile worldview rather than educate people through true freedom of expression and access, then the UC Board of Regents are signing what should be the death warrant of their ideological camps. Let the regents find work in the private sector, and see how far they get with demanding the right not to be offended.
The best remedy for bad speech is more speech, not the speech police, and not a snitch system and witchhunt tribunals.