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.