It’s almost impossible to stop thinking about what we just witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia, where White nationalists marched in favor of White supremacy.
The responses from local city officials, University administrators, state politicians, all the way up to the President were in some sense predictable—both good and bad. And universities beyond Virginia, all around the country, are now wondering about what to say, whether to say it, to whom, and how.
Debilitating our analysis is a confused commitment to “neutrality.” This poorly articulated obligation has legal, political, and pedagogical dimensions.
Legally, we understand that there is something called the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech. We assume that this means that the government must somehow be neutral to different kinds of speech, including racist speech and apologies thereof.
Politically, we recognize that we live in a pluralistic democracy. Different people have extremely different ideas, values, religious and political commitments, and we recognize that such variety should be celebrated.
Pedagogically, critical thinkers realize that we are rarely as smart and virtuous as we assume ourselves to be. Sometimes, we turn out to be plain wrong—not only about facts (e.g., that the universe revolves around the earth) but also about values (e.g., that separate could be equal). This possibility—that we may actually be wrong—leads all genuinely critical thinkers to have open minds, to invite contestation, to reject orthodoxies and fundamentalisms.
For these reasons—legal, political, and pedagogical—we in the University are anxious about breaching neutrality, about taking sides, especially in some official capacity.
But, have we overlearned this lesson?
Legally, it is true that as a “state actor,” the First Amendment applies to UCLA. And sometimes UCLA acts as a “sovereign”—an organ of the government telling the people what it can or cannot do. In this role, UCLA cannot restrict speech simply because it disagrees with its content, except in extraordinary circumstances.
But UCLA often acts in another capacity, as itself a “speaker.” And in that role, UCLA is free to pick sides. We can loudly prefer Bruins over Trojans when we cheer, academic honesty over cheating when we adjudicate, novel ideas over recycled ones when we tenure. I can proudly claim that I am the Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, not the Minister of Inequity, Homogeneity, and Exclusion. I do so without qualification, hesitation, or false equivalencies. Put simply, even if UCLA-as-sovereign remains neutral, UCLA-as-speaker can take a stand.
Put simply, even if UCLA-as-sovereign remains neutral,
UCLA-as-speaker can take a stand.
The political and pedagogical reasons to remain “neutral” raise other hard questions. Politically, must an embrace of diversity include embracing those who reject diversity’s value? Pedagogically, critical thinking generates intellectual humility. But must that humility lead us to seriously consider worldviews that reject evidence-based arguments? I think not, but recognize that there are no easy answers.
Thankfully, the point of this message is not to proffer easy answers. Instead, it is to take a stand and to invite learning. During the week of October 16, 2017, the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of Student Affairs will host “Free Speech 101: UCLA’s Week on Freedom of Speech.” Through multiple events, UCLA students, staff, faculty, alumni, and friends will be able to listen to, reflect on, and express diverse perspectives about free speech and its role in our democracy and University. Details will be forthcoming.
We hope that this “Free Speech 101” week will prepare us for the upcoming academic year, which will no doubt feature contentious speakers, who may deliver hateful (but fully protected) speech. They may be members of the public who rightfully access the public grounds of a public university. They may be official guests of official student organizations, who are giddy to provoke tweetable reactions. UCLA-as-sovereign will treat these speakers fairly, respectfully, neutrally, without regard to their content. But UCLA-as-speaker will not be silenced by speech that undermines our core values or threatens the security of fellow Bruins.
I still can’t shake the images of White supremacists, roving a southern city, wielding torches, bearing swastikas. They trigger in me a visceral fear of nights of broken glass and brutal retributions. As a teacher, I can’t help but think about the African American students at Virginia just trying to get their homework done.
Intimidation, violence, and terrorism do not arise out of a social vacuum. As Gordon Allport long ago explained, “[v]iolence is always an outgrowth of milder states of mind.” (The Nature of Prejudice, 1954). Let us all commit to reach out, to connect, to challenge, to speak up, and to take a stand against these milder states of mind. Let us recommit to the Principles Against Intolerance affirmed throughout the University of California. As Chancellor Gene Block has reminded us, “[c]ommunities thrive best when we understand each other’s hopes and have empathy for each other’s fears.”
I promise to do my part, not as any sovereign dictating what others shall do, but as a fellow Bruin, just trying to do the right thing.
In response to the violence in Charlottesville, other University leaders have sent along messages. We’re keeping an updated list here:
- Statement from Janet Napolitano (UC President)
- Op-Ed in The San Francisco Chronicle by Janet Napolitano (UC President)
- Statement from UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine
- Statement from UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies
- Statement from Dean Jody Heymann (UCLA Fielding School of Public Health)
- Statement from Dean Paul Krebsbach and Professor Edmond Hewlett (UCLA School of Dentistry)
- Statement from Dean Jennifer Mnookin (UCLA School of Law)
- Statement from Dean Judy Olian (UCLA Anderson School of Management)