OPINION: How UC Can Respond to Bigoted Speech Without Censorship
By Justus Rosenberg and Kenneth S. Stern
San Francisco Chronicle, August 20, 2015
You are a parent of a University of California student and you are concerned. Last year, effigies of black people suspended from nooses were found at UC Berkeley. A swastika was daubed on a UC Davis Jewish fraternity. And the debate about Israel and Palestine has, in some places, turned toxic (for example, the questioning of whether a Jewish UCLA student could be “unbiased” as a member of student government, a Facebook post that pro-Palestinian students at UC Davis were in effect supporting “savages”).
What should the UC regents to do? Some groups, focusing on allegations of antisemitism (and double-standards regarding Israel) had asked the regents to adopt the U.S. State Department’s definition of antisemitism. The regents, wisely, did not do so at their July meeting. Instead, they said they will consider adopting a set of principles about intolerance (including antisemitism) at their September meeting.
Presumably you’re sending your child to college because you want him or her to learn how to think about big ideas in a safe environment. By “safe,” we mean an environment in which your child is not going to get beaten up or bullied. Some parents mistakenly think “safe” means their child will not be made uncomfortable by hearing opinions he or she might consider offensive. A college experience without intellectual discomfort is a wasted four years.
If you want your child to get the most out of college, you should insist the regents protect the bedrock principle that a university is a unique community dedicated to learning, thinking and teaching. A university works best when ideas are evaluated deeply on their merit. Without unfettered, honest and frequently disquieting inquiry, new understandings of our world would be less likely to emerge.
Yet, as a parent, you should also be concerned by how hatred manifests itself in scholarly communities, which are not immune to the world’s problems. Discrimination or intimidation would mean that your child, because of his or her sex, gender identity, religion, ethnicity, nationality or other characteristic, could not participate fully in the intellectual life of the campus, nor have his or her ideas judged solely on their merit. Hateful speech, left unchecked, can have a similar effect.
What should the regents to do to cultivate a campus open to the expression of all ideas, knowing that some expressions of opinion will be bigoted, or at least viewed by others that way?
First, parents should insist that the regents not ignore the more significant challenges that have little to do with speech. Your student and other students come from different backgrounds and experiences. It isn’t easy for adults, let alone teenagers, to know how to interact with others who don’t look like them, or eat the same foods, or dress the same way. Your child is more likely to feel marginalized from seeing hateful graffiti, from perceptions of different treatment by campus security, from pressure to conform, and many other aspects of day-to-day college life than by seeing a noose or hearing hateful comments related to political conflict.
Parents should insist that the campus take anonymous surveys so that everyone better understands what is telegraphing to students that they are somehow less a part of the social and intellectual fabric of campus life than others.
Second, parents should insist on workable procedures for students to report instances of bigotry (and also for allegations that faculty members are failing in their duty to evaluate student work based on its quality, rather than a divergent political view).
Third, they should ask the regents to ensure that each campus has a plan so that when a significant instance of bigotry occurs, there are clear and immediate communications from the chancellor, campus police and campus administrators.
Fourth, parents should ask the regents to stress a core principle without which the university cannot function: that attempts to outlaw or chill speech are more dangerous than hateful speech itself. Unless the speech is illegal, such as threats against a person or a group coupled with a clear call for immediate unlawful action, it must be answered with other speech that argues why what was advocated or articulated was not only wrong, but also bigoted. This, not censorship or “trigger warnings,” will tell the students that people of goodwill are speaking out with and for them.
Parents should encourage the UC chancellors to take a more active role. Alice Chandler, when she was president of State University of New York at New Paltz, was asked what she would do if a student hung a banner from a dorm saying “X-type of student is not welcome here,” and there was no rule against banners. She said she’d hang a larger banner from her office window saying that all students were welcome. That — and not censorship — is the right approach.
Parents know that the problems of bigotry, prejudice, discrimination and hatred are ones their child will face throughout life. Perhaps the regents should pledge that the university will find ways to encourage more teaching, research, and thought about this essential part of the human condition. Given all the problems hatred continues to cause in our world, why is it that no one can graduate the University of California system (or anywhere else) with a degree in the interdisciplinary study of hate?
Justus Rosenberg is the president and Kenneth S. Stern is the executive director of the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation.
To comment, submit a letter to the editor at www.sfgate.com/submissions.
Contact the UC Board of Regents at email@example.com.