Civil Discourse Keynote

September 15, 2017

President Janet Napolitano gave the keynote address at the Nature and Practice of Civil Discourse Symposium in Sacramento, CA on September 15, 2017. Here are her remarks as prepared for delivery:

Good afternoon! And thank you, Judge Fogel, for that kind introduction.

I am pleased to see some of our nation’s sharpest minds gathered for a day of thoughtful exchange and reflection. The judiciary has long served as the bulwark of civil discourse in our country, demonstrating that it is possible to treat others with respect and civility, even in a system that’s inherently adversarial.

It’s also quite appropriate that these discussions are taking place in a space named for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a public servant who has long called our attention to the erosion of the tone and quality of our national discourse.

As he put it himself, speaking to the American Bar Association twenty years ago this summer, civility has deep roots in, “respect for the dignity and worth of a fellow human being.”

So this is important work you are doing at this symposium, and timely.

Today, we find ourselves in a new chapter in our nation’s struggle to preserve civil discourse. That struggle has been especially intense recently on our college and university campuses.

It is at UC Berkeley, at Middlebury College, and on the campus that Thomas Jefferson founded, the University of Virginia, where we have witnessed disturbing acts of violence, intolerance, and speech suppression.

These incidents have led us to grapple anew with tough questions about speech, about safety, about who we are as institutions of higher learning, and about who we are as a nation.

Questions such as:

  • How do we balance the need to protect freedom of expression with the need to physically protect our students, faculty, and staff, not to mention our University’s police force and the surrounding communities in which our campuses exist?
  • When is it appropriate for university leaders to restrict or revoke someone’s right to speak on our campuses?
  • How do we ensure that every member of our University community feels safe, welcome, and respected, while also fighting to protect speech that defies our basic values as an institution?

I wish I could tell you that I have all the answers to these questions. What I do know is that we as a nation must thoughtfully consider and begin to tackle them, together. And as the leader of the largest public research university system in the nation – the home of the Free Speech Movement – I believe there is no better environment to wrestle with these questions than American university campuses.

After all, these national institutions are meant to foster a free-flowing exchange of ideas. They are designed as a testing ground for new knowledge and viewpoints. They celebrate the act of questioning the status quo, and they enshrine academic freedom.

Of course, upholding free expression doesn’t come without challenges and missteps. And it doesn’t come without a cost.

There is the financial cost of keeping a campus secure when a controversial speaker pays a visit, of repairing the physical damage after a protest directed at that speaker turns violent and destructive.

And there is the “campus climate” cost of allowing speech that makes some of our most vulnerable groups feel like they are under attack within their own university.

What can we do to lessen these costs, without letting fear and violence dilute our right of free expression? How can the University of California serve as a leader in this arena?

First, we can reaffirm our intrinsic values as a university community, and as a nation—values such as equality, diversity, and inclusiveness. We must proclaim these values loudly and firmly when anyone attempts to undermine them. We can remind those members of our community who feel hurt and frightened by the speech they encounter that they do belong, that our differences make our nation stronger and that we will do everything we can to keep them safe.

Second, rather than precluding offensive speech, we can answer it with more speech, with better speech. We will not be an institution where speakers we disagree with are shouted down, but we can challenge those speakers—respectfully—to explain and defend their opinions, and we can create space for speakers with opposing opinions. We will not be an institution that responds to verbal attacks inside an auditorium with physical violence outside the auditorium, but we can support peaceful, nonviolent protests in response to viewpoints we deplore.

Now, I recognize that too often, the offensive speech students encounter is directed at specific groups that have historically been on the receiving end of hate and bigotry. And I am proud that so many members of the UC community have stood up for their fellow students, faculty, and staff members, and sought to protect them against vicious verbal attacks. But we cannot go so far as to silence all verbal attacks. We must protect freedom of speech for all, regardless of the content of that speech. We must have the discipline to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate limitations on freedom of expression. Yes, that means we defend the rights of provocateurs to share their objectionable thoughts at our university campuses. No, that does not mean we have to allow rhetoric that personally intimidates or harasses others. The line I’m describing can be legally and morally difficult to detect, but we must seek it out and take action accordingly.

And third, we can—and should—prioritize teaching the next generation the fundamentals of civics, an area of education that has been neglected for far too long, with dire consequences. We must do a better job of educating our youth about our First Amendment history, and about what can happen to all of us if we fail to protect one of our most cherished Constitutional rights.

The new Dean of UC Berkeley’s School of Law, Erwin Chemerinsky, illustrated this point in a recent interview. He recounted a disagreement he had with his father decades ago over the Nazi Party marching in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago with a large Jewish population, many of whom were Holocaust survivors: “My father just couldn’t understand why they should have the right to march…. And of course my position then, and my position now, is, that’s what free speech is like. And if you can stop the Nazis because you dislike what they’re saying, tomorrow those in power might stop us because they dislike what we’re saying.”

Put another way: If we at UC unreasonably limit the ability of speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter to safely express themselves on our campuses, we are telling the world that we would accept the suppression of our own speech should someone else find our views objectionable. This would set a dangerous and irrevocable precedent and could spell the end of the American democracy as we know it. Surely, such an approach would have meant that the Free Speech Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war protests, and the most recent Women’s March may not have been possible. And we must ask ourselves, is this the kind of community—the kind of nation—we want to be part of?

University leaders like myself struggle every day to balance civil discourse with free expression on our campuses. But as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in his 1927 concurring opinion in Whitney v. California, those who won our independence, “believed liberty to be the secret of happiness, and courage to be the secret of liberty.” It takes courage to protect free expression and bear its costs, but it is critical to our liberty and to the survival of our democracy.

So we at the University of California will continue to pay these costs and more. We cannot, and will not, let fear or violence preclude free speech.

In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, constant alerts on our smartphones, and a fount of information available at our fingertips, it can be difficult to pause, step back, and consider the historical perspective on what we are facing today. But recent events have led me to contemplate UC’s own past.

It was in 1949, in the depths of McCarthyism and its associated paranoia, that a UC Berkeley psychology professor refused to take the “loyalty oath” that was then required of University of California employees. He was worried about the impact of the oath on academic freedom, and he objected to the principle of being forced to swear such an oath.

The professor, Edward Tolman, lost his job over this.

Eleven years later, the fight at UC over the anti-communist loyalty oath led toward the birth of the Free Speech Movement. UC Berkeley erupted in turmoil when a student group invited a suspected Communist – UCLA alumnus Frank Wilkinson – to speak on campus. UC’s president at the time, Clark Kerr, stood firm on the principle behind letting the event go forward.

To his critics, Kerr said: “The University is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas. Thus it permits the freest expression of views before students, trusting to their good sense in passing judgment on these views. Only in this way can it best serve American democracy.”

As President of the University of California—the same role I hold today— Kerr was a wise and brave leader and is considered something of a founding father in our institutional history.

And he, too, paid for his principled effort to protect free speech and ensure campus safety: after sparring with the UC Board of Regents, the California State Legislature, and California Gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan over the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, Kerr was fired shortly after Reagan took office as Governor in 1967.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Kerr’s conviction and courage helped embed the Free Speech Movement in UC’s DNA. His sacrifice helped make our University the institution that it is, one that cultivates the free exchange of ideas and expression.

The academic year that just began will come with new challenges to the delicate balance between free expression and civil discourse at American universities. At UC, we expect more controversial speakers and more passionate protests.

But when emotions run high, when fear and divisiveness seem to overtake our public discourse, we must reach toward our basic values to guide us through the turbulence. For us as Americans, those values include freedom of expression, but also respect and civility toward those whose beliefs and ideas are polar opposites from ours.

As a university president, teaching those values to the next generation of leaders, and living those values in our everyday actions, is monumentally difficult, and critically important.

Thank you! And in the words of the motto of the University of California, “Fiat Lux,” – or, “Let there be light!”