Chancellor Gary S. May’s “Checking In” letter Friday (Jan. 20) came with his video message on “Higher Education and Freedom of Expression,” which we have inserted below, followed by the transcript.
“This subject has been on my mind a lot recently, especially after reflecting on some of the ugly incidents we saw on campus last year targeting members of our community,” he said in his letter. “Public universities, like UC Davis, are obligated by law to uphold free speech, even when it is offensive or hateful. Like higher education institutions across the country, our campus plays a unique role in fostering a teaching and learning environment and at the same time providing a venue for the free expression of many different ideas.”
He asked everyone in the campus community to watch his video about the benefits and challenges of free speech. “Let’s think about how each of us individually can help to ensure that our campus continues to value civil and respectful speech in all of our conversations.”
I want to spend a few moments talking with you about the role of higher education and freedom of expression. This is a topic that is on many of our minds, and I want to share some of my thoughts with you. Colleges and universities are frequently in the spotlight because of speakers that they invite to campus that have views that provoke or shock us.
As a public university, the connection between fostering a teaching and learning environment and allowing free speech is something we are obligated to uphold. We are obligated under the First Amendment, but we are also guided by our Principles of Community, which call for us to recognize that there are different perspectives and to commit ourselves to nonviolent exchange and the highest standards of conduct and decency toward all.
With every generation comes further discourse about what freedom of expression looks or sounds or feels like. Members of our campus community and non-UC Davis affiliates may not agree about how to manage those who want to share philosophies and ideologies we don’t agree with.
Over the last few years, ideas behind freedom of expression have become more heated and divisive. When civic engagement takes place in a higher-ed environment, the event itself or activities around it often become flashpoints for free speech-related controversy and backlash.
Those incidents make it hard for everyone and cause further stress.
I acknowledge that.
At the same time, we can’t close off our campus to people some may disagree with. We cannot isolate ourselves from issues, even if they’re hurtful, mean-spirited or offensive.
So let me talk for a moment about hate speech. The term "hate speech" is not defined by law, and no such category exists as an exception to the First Amendment. That means that even if speech is hateful or offensive, it is still protected by the First Amendment.I’m definitely not saying that I condone hate speech. Let me say that again: I do not condone hate speech.
We have seen some ugly incidents of hate speech just this last year in our community that target Black Americans, Jewish people, Muslims, Asian Americans and others. I have condemned these incidents, and I will continue to stand up for all members of our campus community who are targets of racist and other hateful behavior and words.
Violence and safety
Hate speech sometimes devolves into inciting violence. We have even experienced that here at UC Davis. Violence can break out between people or groups, but it can also take the form of people damaging or trying to damage property, including breaking doors or windows.
While we take every precaution to either prevent or plan for such situations, we can’t guarantee that violence won’t happen. We do, however, continue to learn from every event and adapt our plans accordingly, keeping the safety and well-being of our campus community at the top of mind in those plans. That won’t change.
The role of a public university
Let me return to our larger role in all of this, as a public university. We take pride in being a place where students are introduced to and can debate many different ideas and viewpoints. Through this process, students develop critical thinking skills to identify disinformation and discern those ideas that will contribute to the advancement of truth. This is a powerful way to disarm the influence of hate speech.
As a public institution, UC Davis is obligated by law to guarantee free speech protections. That’s why we allow registered student organizations to bring speakers with diverse — and sometimes controversial — perspectives to campus. It’s why we allow an open forum for many views, ideas and opinions, including those that some may dislike or find offensive.
There’s more work to do, however. In 2017, the University of California created the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement to consider how to restore trust in the value of free speech on college campuses. Every year the Center holds a conference for students, administrators, activists and thought leaders from around the country to discuss the most pressing issues of free speech and civic engagement on campus.
The First Amendment
There are many good reasons the right to free speech is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a democratic society. It gives each of us the right to criticize our leaders and to rally for change when we disagree with laws or policies.
Free speech allows people from marginalized communities to have a voice. That was certainly true during the civil rights movement to eliminate segregation and provide greater equality for African Americans like me. Its hard-won gains largely relied on the right to freedom of expression and the freedom to assemble and peaceably protest — without property damage or violence.
On the other hand, those same free speech protections also extend to those with abhorrent views who choose to spread hate.
Actionable steps forward
So how do we deal with these negative influences on our campus and in society?
I believe the best way forward is not to silence those voices we dislike, but rather to rebut them and counter them with something better.
In the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
When it comes to free speech — and hate speech — there’s no simple solution, but we are taking action. UC Davis is partnering with the city of Davis and Yolo County on a new initiative called Hate-Free Together.
I encourage you to get involved in Hate-Free Together and reconnect with our community. There will be many ways you’ll be able to participate. More details will be shared soon.
I also ask you to think about how you might commit to supporting a meaningful and constructive exchange of ideas.
Finally, I want to reemphasize that this campus values the practice of freedom of expression. We can learn from one another if we allow ourselves to listen and give space to others. This sounds simple, but I know it isn’t easy. But it is the very fabric of what makes a university a unique place to grow and to thrive.
Let’s keep that in mind as the year progresses. We are all in this, together.
- Melissa Blouin, News and Media Relations, 530-564-2698, firstname.lastname@example.org