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Shut it Down: UC’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement

The University of California’s recent decision to establish The National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement in Washington, D.C. illustrates all that is wrong with academe today. The typical answer of a university to a perceived problem, in this case First Amendment freedoms on college campuses, is to develop a new center and/or academic program and hire a director and/or new faculty to engage in center activities. The end result is more bureaucratic bloat and, in the case of a public institution such as UC, a questionable use of funds.

How ironic it is that Janet Napolitano, the president of the UC system, will chair the new center and that funding for the center will come from the UC presidential endowment. I have to ask the obvious question: Did the donors approve (or would they approve) the specific use of these funds to establish a center headed by the very person who makes the decision on how the funds will be spent? This is a classic conflict of interests.

This center should never have been established. Whether it’s privately or, certainly, publicly funded, scarce resources should not be squandered on doing what already should be done in existing courses and programs. I mean shouldn’t UC be teaching about free speech already? What is the role of government and political science courses if not to address free speech issues?

I taught in the California State University system virtually all my life. I’ve seen just about every center there is but never before questioned a center’s purpose like UC’s Free Speech Center. Here is what the UC website says about the new initiative: “The time has come to explore in a thoughtful, deliberative way the current state of free speech on our college campuses, our relationship with the First Amendment and what the future holds for free speech.”

I don’t get it. The time has come to do this? What has the UC system been doing up until now with respect to teaching about the First Amendment?

UC Berkeley has been at the forefront of the free speech crisis on college campuses lately that has led to shutting down controversial speakers. This is surprising to those of us who grew up in the 1960s and admired the university for starting the free speech movement.

The legitimacy of the center can be further questioned when we look at UC Berkeley's Statement on Free Speech: "The University of California Policy on Speech and Advocacy guarantees students the constitutionally-protected rights of free expression, speech, assembly, and worship."

OK. Now I get it. Students should not feel intimidated and should be free to express their points of view. But, doesn't this extend to invited speakers as well?

My point is UC should teach about its own policies in the context of recent attempts to prevent controversial speakers like Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking to students who want to hear their points of view and engage in academic debate, the way an academic institution should do.

It's a sad day when UC Berkeley has to cancel 'Free Speech Week" as it did last September, for fear of violent protests in reaction to conservative or, for that matter, any speaker regardless of his or her point of view. The litmus test should be whether the speaker espouses violence, not concern about a violent reaction of a small group of troublemakers, many of whom aren't even students. If the speaker crosses the line between what is and is not appropriate speech, then students should walk out and demonstrate their disdain for those points of view. We don't need a new center to make that point. It's common sense ethics.

The problem on college campuses today lies with a spineless administration and not the vast majority of students who want to open their minds to opposing points of view. In fact, a 2016 poll by Gallup/Knight Foundation found that 72 percent of college students oppose restrictions on expression of offensive political views.

I call on the California Legislature to investigate the purpose of The National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. I have no doubt that state resources will be used for the Center's operations down the road because some faculty will be assigned to center operations by granting them release time from teaching thereby necessitating the hiring of new faculty to teach their classes. This will require the use of state funding making it a legitimate question for legislators who need to get out in front of the issue. Moreover, students may be cheated by having their classes taught by part-time faculty rather than established scholars in their field.

The whole premise of the center is academically questionable. The use of funds for this purpose can be challenged from an ethical perspective. A university exists to promote open and honest academic debate on controversial issues of the day. If UC can't do that without a new center, then it should question its own existence as an institution of higher learning.

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