U.C. Berkeley chancellor hedges on free speech

September 9, 2014 • 12:06 pm

Over at the lawyers’ website Popehat, Ken White has posted a letter that Nicholas Dirks, Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley (that’s the top dog) sent to all the students, faculty and staff on September 5. White analyzes the letter line by line, and I’m sure, that as a free-speech lawyer, his analysis is excellent. But I didn’t read his analysis because I wanted to offer my own take on the letter without being influenced by someone else. So first, here’s the letter, which may be a bit hard to read:


The first two paragraphs giveth, and the rest taketh away. Especially telling is the sentence in the third paragraph, “As a consequence, when issues are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings, the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation.” I read that as “you can say what you want so long as you don’t make anybody else ‘feel strongly,’ or become offended.”

That takes the wind right out of free speech. What’s the point of having it if you put the damper on stuff that offends other people? We better not talk about abortion, politics, the Middle East, gay marriage, or anything that could “offend” someone.

To promulgate the notion that free speech should be controlled if it’s divisive—and, on of all places a college campus—is ridiculous. Campuses are supposed to be the bastions of free speech, the place where you learn to tolerate dissent and examine your own views by listening to opposing ones. If you never get upset or offended, you’re living in an echo chamber.

The next paragraph simply underscores the previous one: we can have free speech, but it’s best that everyone feel “safe and respected,” and is treated with civility.  Well, yes, if your speech endangers someone directly, that’s illegal, as the courts have ruled, but all too many people take any strong opposition to their views as “disrespect” or “uncivil behavior.” What’s genuinely disrespectful is not affording someone the dignity and respect due them as feeling human beings, but that doesn’t mean you have to tread softly around their opinions. Muslims, in particular, feel offended and disrespected when their faith is criticized, but they’re far from alone. Christians, too, are crying about being persecuted these days.

The Chancellor is tiptoeing around the issue, but I’m pretty sure that by exercising free speech “graciously,” he means, “try not to upset anybody.” Well, as many have said, including Stephen Frye, nobody has the right not to be offended. Chancellor Dirks is suggesting in his screed that folks on his campus have the right not to be offended by someone else’s speech. But when that conflicts with the right to say anything you want, the First Amendment should win. If someone called me a “dirty Jew” on my own campus, of course I’d be offended, but not for a second would I want to ensure that they couldn’t say that again on fear of punishment. If somone told me that I was a murderer because I favor abortion, I would be a tad upset, but others would be deeply offended. Nevertheless, I would never try to curb their speech on the grounds that I don’t like it. Nothing should be off limits. Anything that’s led to moral progress was at one time considered divisive. And of course some epithets will be genuinely tasteless and mean-spirited, but so what? We’re adults and we should learn that such speech should not be banned, but countered with opposing speech.

Chancellor Dirks, I think, is trying to curb “offensive” speech without saying so directly. He cloaks his email in soothing words like “graciously,” “civility,” and “respect,” but I think I know what he means. And what he means is not good for higher education.


52 thoughts on “U.C. Berkeley chancellor hedges on free speech

  1. Shit! To goddamned hell with censorship, and fuck this tone trolling.

    If an university — and especially UCB! — isn’t the place for a rousing good raucous debate, where is!?


    My great-grandma got her degree from UCB. So did my grandma. My mom got two of ’em. My sister…got her degree from UC Davis, but we don’t hold that (much) against her. Grandpa took part in the student Vietnam War protests there, and I think might have even gotten arrested. When we were living at 38th and Fulton, Mom and Dad took me as a babe in arms to the protests across the street in Golden Gate Park.

    …and this goddamned motherfucking sonofabitch asshole Dicks is shitting all over everything they, literally, stood for….


    1. (I should probably clarify: Grandpa wasn’t a student at the time, of course. At one time he was a researcher at the Lawrence Livermore labs on the heavy water project, but quit when his conscience caught up with him and he realized that the horrors of the planned use of his research far outweighed the amazing science he was working on. I don’t remember what he was doing with his life during the protests, but I think he still had some connections with academia.


      1. Hats off to Grandpa Goren! BTW, free speech and civility are NOT “two sides of a single coin.” If they were, America could never have emerged as a tolerant egalitarian nation. The correct course is to read the letter, then (IMHO) uncivilly deride this insulting ill-mannered bureaucrat.

    1. Exactly! I have never seen such an assault on academic freedom of speech in my lifetime. I cannot believe what I am hearing from University Chancellors. It’s like you have freedom of speech as long as you don’t say anything that might cause trouble for them. They need to give up that job!

  2. “If you behave like a sheep expect to be eaten by wolves”
    Don’t know who said that first. Universities are not particularly friendly places-neither is any other human institution -and part of participation is learning how to be tough while staying on point and not being aggressive. Seems like the chancellor has forgotten how to be forthright. So what did he ‘actually’ say.? Waffle?

  3. I agree that we shouldn’t ban speech that is upsetting or divisive.

    So if everyone would just conclude on their own that being unnecessarily cruel in their communications was awful, that’d be awesome.

  4. This letter doesn’t really bother me because I don’t see anything in it that hints at rules, regulations or consequences. It’s basically a parental admonition to “be nice”.

    1. “It’s basically a parental admonition to “be nice”.”
      That’s what parents should be teaching little kids. It is not the place of a university chancellor to tell people how they should debate.
      Muslims get offended at the slightest criticism, and sometimes they get offended at things that have nothing to do with them. Just take a look at muslims in the UK trying to get a cartoon character Peppa Pig removed from the TV because it has a pig as it’s main character. They even started a facebook page Muslims against Peppa Pig. Another facebook page has been started Peppa Pig against Muslims.
      Being polite to muslims never works, they take it as a sign of weakness.

    2. There’s a lot of ‘not nice’ speech on Sproul Plaza (or there used to be). People yelling crazy crap. The letter could reasonably be interpreted as a warning of a crackdown.

      Berkeley is known for its free speech…but it’s also known as a place where the administration and police have tear-gassed the students on occasion, as recently as the 90’s (and there may be incidents more recent that I’m not aware of).

  5. “As a consequence, when issues are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings, the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation.”

    As it should do occasionally. Some communities need to be undermined.

  6. This whole letter may be an excuse to crack down on Sproul Plaza. It’s traditionally been a somewhat ‘no holds barred’ place where people stand on soap boxes (or plastic buckets) and literally shout over each other and the crowd (and the crowd sometimes shouts back).

    Sounds to me like he’s saying “I’m not going to let people do that in Sproul any more.” Which would be a shame, because frankly no student’s Berkeley experience is going to be significantly negatively affected by the street preachers and other yahoos on Sproul plaza.

  7. I am not sure what it is the Chancellor is trying to say. That faculty should speak civilly or courteously to students? If so, he sure buried his message in a perhaps unintentional, but distinctly pusillanimous qualification of free speech. I bet he’s regretting he opened his mouth….

    1. Yes, I thought the same. It seems to me that this was written to clumsily cover up a real point in there somewhere that seemed too distasteful to say directly.

      I would love to read a reply from the author as to the true intent of this note.

      I’m all for civility but how you react to my civil discourse is not on me. If you are offended, let’s talk about why you are offended. That’s progress. That gets us somewhere. If you are uncivil and rude. I don’t want to talk to you and you may find that when others avoid you or react badly to you, that your approach may need to change. This too is progress.

      1. And it goes the other way too. There are circumstances where uncivility and rudeness are appropriate. If you find that many people react to you with uncivility or rudeness, that too may be good reason to take a look at yourself.

        1. “If you find that many people react to you with uncivility or rudeness, that too may be good reason to take a look at yourself.”

          Sounds reasonable. I can certainly understand it if it is their response to my own incivility and rudeness.

          Also sounds reasonable that if more than a few or many people treat one with incivility or rudeness because:

          – that’s “how they wuz raised,” or what they observed at home, or they “just don’t know any better,” as if those are somehow legitimate excuses;

          – or somehow feel specially entitled to be uncivil because they are they (perhaps, in Amuricuh, “American Exceptionalism” at the individual level) and take a certain pride in having a reputation for and a self-image of “letting it rip,” and, though having a 55-gal drum of “situational awareness,” they nevertheless don’t let that get in the way of the pleasure of giving someone “a good cussin’ out” (to my mind a characteristic of someone easily offended);

          – they just can’t conceive of the idea of occasionally holding the tongue for the sake of a Bigger Picture; or they keep doing it because someone (in an effort to “keep the peace”) holds his tongue and they (erroneously) take that as evidence that what they’re saying apparently doesn’t bother him all that much, else he’d retaliate;

          then, perhaps one should occasionally throw caution to the wind and respond in kind and see if they can take what they dish out, and let the chips fall where they may.

          I was once advised by someone, “You can’t control the actions of others, but you can control your response to them.” I think it generally pretty good advice, but one occasionally wonders whether this self-discipline in responding is more stressful than succumbing to the temptation to respond in kind. To the extent that the obligation or duty of self-restraint exists, I don’t see where any mature reasonable adult can indulge in special pleading so as to be exempt from such a duty or obligation, any more than they can regarding not being offended.

  8. It is somewhat ironic that his call for restraint to prevent “strong feelings” itself leads to strong feelings. Does that count?

    1. Ha ha, yes. He now needs to curb his speech about curbing speech. I hate to think what happens if by reacting to what he says causes him to have strong reactions too so now I have to curb my speech about his speech about curbing speech and he needs to curb his speech about by reaction to his speech about curbing is speech. That’s a lot to process.

  9. “first two paragraphs giveth, and the rest taketh away. ”

    I don’t think so, depending on what sort of actions or rules go along with the letter. If there aren’t any, then I think it’s fine to ask people to be polite. While sometimes rude is necessary, other times it’s just gratuitous.

    1. But where is the line? Is what is rude to be determined by the recipient? If a mathematics instructor is told by a calculus II student that they find “the fundamental theorem of calculus” rude, what them?

      Alternatively, if some other body determines rudeness, how does that work?

      I am against people saying things that result in *discrimination*, though only in official capacities in general (though if someone does do it on their own time we could perhaps pay close attention to what they do on campus). I mention this last one because I really dislike the “monitor students” when they aren’t on campus, etc. thing done some places. E.g., if a bunch of dumbasses want to get drunk and say crap at a frosh celebration off campus, fine. If they ruin a lawn or trash a bar, so what? Just have the police procecute them as usual. If they have to go to prison, and miss their semester, etc. that’s a consequence. But don’t kick people out of school for the behaviour elsewhere – that’s just surveillance state stuff.

      1. Lines are often fuzzy but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist.


        When it comes to off campus student misconduct… noise disruptions, vandalism, and such that happens in my neighborhood when the University is in session, the institution needs to help establish and enforce lines of behavior. Universities establish policies that directly affect their neighbors, many of whom are just regular folks trying to live their lives. Housing policies (are there enough dorm rooms?), class scheduling policies (no classes on Friday means more parties on Thursday nights), and student safety issues (drunk students falling to their deaths in rivers) all provide reasons for universities to establish policies that address off-campus misconduct.


        None of that has much to do with the UC-Berkeley chancellor’s misguided attempt to throttle free speech.

  10. Jerry, when you say you ‘favour abortion’ I guess you mean you ‘favour a woman’s right to decide on abortion?’

    Just that some people would quote that at face value instead of interpreting (what I think is) your true intent!

  11. Berke Breathed who wrote the excellent “Bloom County” comic strip, starring Opus the penguin, coined the term offensensitivity. The concept annoyed him enough that he did numerous strips exploring the idea. Well worth checking out.

  12. UC administrations have tried this before at Berkeley, including back in the 60’s when I was hanging around the campus. It never works.

  13. My brother was one of those arrested in Sproul Hall in 1964 during the Free Speech Movement sit-in.

    Let’s remember that the occasion for it was a UC policy that student organizations could not “advocate” anything — they could sponsor discussions of issues but they could not take any positions. This (ridiculous) policy was adopted because one of the UC Regents was William Knowland, publisher of the Oakland Tribune and a power in the Republican Party. The campaign between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater was in progress that autumn, and UC head Clark Kerr did not want UC students doing anything that might offend Knowland or conservative donors.

    This was a case where the administration and the Faculty Senate adopted repressive policies and only backed down under great pressure from students. (The UC administration did not quite understand how fired-up many students already were by the civil rights movement and the escalating Vietnam War). There has been a fraught relationship between the Free Speech Movement participants and UC ever since — although rather recently the UC administration has taken to patting itself on the back for how committed it is to allowing dissent.

    1. My brother was one of those arrested in Sproul Hall in 1964 during the Free Speech Movement sit-in.

      Come to think of it, that may be the one that Grandpa was at, too. Literally before my time, so you can understand why I’m not entirely sure….


  14. “. . . we can exercise our right to free speech insofar as . . .”

    Qualifications like this on the First Amendment are a lot more of a concern than a request for mutual civility in my opinion. That he made his intent to qualify free speech without enumerating any rules or guidelines does not make his letter any less troubling to me.

  15. I find it hard to believe UC students would put up with this ambiguous language.

    What the Chancellor needs is nakedness and lots of it. Naked guy came to visit Stanford in the nineties and the reception was fun,


    alas I thinkk Martinez might have had other psychological issue, unfortunately.

  16. The trouble is that some people see any expression of an opposing view point as offensive. For instance, there is no “civil” way to tell some people that you disagree with them on abortion; they will be personally offended by what you say, no matter how politely you phrase it. To avoid offending everyone, first certain points of view will have to be declared off-limits, then certain topics.

    1. And, let’s be fair, there are plenty of things said by people that are legitimately worthy of the charge “offensive.” Being offended is not necessarily the problem, though of course so many are way to easily offended, and seem to enjoy feeling that way.

  17. Were the Chancellor instead head of a private university, do I correctly gather that he would be no less worthy of a critique, but not on the basis of and with reference to political speech and the state, what with a private university effectively being a private corporate tyranny?

  18. “You have the right to free speech/As long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it” – The Clash, “Know Your Rights”

  19. Mistake: You misspelled “Stephen Fry”. I wouldn’t nitpick normally, but if I remember correctly you are sensitive about misspelling of personal names?

  20. In light of the resurgence of violence as a means of resolving disagreements – what better way to silence dissent, or avenge an affront – what the Chancellor is saying, in so many words, is don’t get yourself killed or kill someone because you or they are too immature, too closed minded, or lack the emotional intelligence to handle what is being said.

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