Ensuring Free Speech on California College Campuses


Recent polls show that many college students are worried about the declining state of free speech on campus.

In California, the attacks on campus free speech have been fierce and increasing.  PRI’s Steve Hayward, who is currently teaching at UC Berkeley, described his front row-seat to the current clash over campus free speech on a recent episode of PRI’s podcast.  Cal has generated national headlines for recent incidents of conservative speakers being silenced by some administrators, often accompanied by violence by leftist students and agitators.

A just-released Gallup poll found that 61 percent of college students believe that their campus climate “deters speech.”  Further, a much larger percentage of students think that liberal students are “able to freely and openly express their views” versus the ability of conservative students to do the same.

In response to the efforts to quash free speech on campus, California State Assembly members Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) and Bill Quirk (D-Hayward) have introduced AB 2374, the Free Speech on Campus Act of 2018.

The bipartisan bill requires the California community colleges and state universities to create and disseminate statements that affirm the importance of free expression, and to provide opportunities for teaching the history and value of the First Amendment.  The legislation was crafted in consultation with UC Berkeley School of Law dean Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, the chancellor of UC Irvine.

Last year, Assembly members Kiley and Quirk authored two legislative resolutions that promoted free speech statements, both of which unanimously passed the Legislature.  Kiley, a former high school teacher, says that AB 2374 builds on these statements of support for free speech: “We are now calling on California universities to create free speech statements of their own, and to ensure that students understand the vital importance of free speech to academic inquiry and debate.”

The Gallup poll found that a declining proportion of students favor having an open campus environment that allows all types of speech—70% in 2017 versus 78% in 2016.  Such significant declines are not lost on UC Chancellor Gillman.

“It is vital,” says Gilman, “that today’s students understand and appreciate the importance of having a safe and inclusive learning environment where any idea can be expressed, evaluated, contested and engaged.”  If colleges and universities fail to create such free-speech learning environments, the risks to our society are monumental.

Gilman sums up what is at stake: “Freedom of speech is essential to freedom of thought; it is essential to democratic government; and it is the indispensible element of every other freedom we enjoy.”  Our founding fathers could not have said it better.

Lance Izumi is Koret senior fellow in education studies and senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute.  He is a former president of the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges and author of PRI’s “An American Education Agenda.”

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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