University of California Professors Should Reconsider Napolitano's Free Speech Center

The politician that runs the University of California wants to give the rest of the nation advice on how to handle free speech.  University of California President Janet Napolitano recently created a national think tank open to discussion of the premise that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees free speech should be modified according to changing student views.  Because “funding for the center will come from the UC presidential endowment, as well as private philanthropic efforts,” Napolitano apparently is subject to no financial accountability to the university she serves as chief executive.

Napolitano named herself Chairwoman of the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, located at the University of California’s Washington DC Center.  Two UC administrators will act as her co-chairs and eight nationally-known trustees, including Barbara Boxer, act as the board.  All but one trustee – a UCLA law student seeking “a process to navigate the [free speech] gray area that we are in right now” – are from outside UC.

The Center will select 20 fellows every year to help shape the national debate about free speech and civic engagement. 

The Center appears to have sprung full-blown from Napolitano’s immediate staff with no review by the faculty-run UC Academic Senate or agenda action by the UC Board of Regents.  A UCLA dean declared “I’m as surprised as you are!” 

A nonacademic, Napolitano is a master of amassing bureaucratic power.  Last year she engineered a change in the University of California Board governance and bylaws so that most questionable decisions raised there are to be decided by the University President (Napolitano).  And she is politically deft, having likely ensured UC’s continuous involvement in managing Los Alamos National Laboratory by partnering with Texas A&M University, the alma mater of the U.S. Secretary of Energy, who will make the final decision.

Her arguments for the free speech Center ring hollow.

Napolitano applies straw men rationales.  She characterizes current constitutional free speech as “free speech Darwinism,” too harsh for today’s snowflakes.  But no thinking professor would introduce To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, without preparing students by discussing the novel’s time and Jim Crow setting.  Napolitano advocates her version of “safe spaces,” specially created places where students “can gather with others of similar backgrounds to share experiences and support one another.”  But students from similar backgrounds currently are not prohibited from gathering together on campus if they so choose.

Napolitano’s main basis for advocating a change in free speech norms is the changed demographics of the University of California student body since UC Berkeley’s 1960’s Free Speech Movement, when 55 percent of students were male and mainly white.  Today’s UC students are 53 percent women; 42 percent are first in their families to attend college; 40 percent of this year’s entering class self-identify as either black, Latino/Latina, or from another underrepresented ethnic or racial group; others raise the issue of their sexual identity. 

Napolitano then links today’s college demographics to the 2016 Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey’s free speech findings -- 72 percent of college students would restrict political speech that may upset or offend members of certain groups and two-thirds of college students would restrict slurs and other offending language intended to offend specific groups of people.    Napolitano combines these findings that “some of today’s students seem less wedded to First Amendment values than previous generations” with changes in college students’ demographics, and implies the combination could curtail the “social Darwinism” of constitutional free speech. 

That is why her administration introduced faculty training to recognize “microaggressions,” everyday expressions about which some students may become frustrated or angry.   Professors should avoid saying America is a “land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” and calling a student “articulate.”

However, alternative explanations of the Gallup/Knight findings readily come to mind.  Many students enter college with inadequate high school instruction in civics and their free speech rights.  And many colleges waive college-level classes in civics and the U.S. Constitution for students with credits in such high school classes, seriously reducing college students’ knowledge about these topics.  For example, What Will They Learn?, the 2017-18 Report of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, finds only 17.6 percent of 1,100 U.S. higher education institutions require a course in U.S. Government or History. 

More importantly, the 2017 Survey of America’s College Students by Hart Research Associates for The Panetta Institute of Public Policy contradicts Gallup/Knight’s free speech findings.  Hart reports a majority (68%) of students feel that protecting free speech is more important than making sure that people do not feel hurt, while 32% believe the opposite.  And a majority of students (64%) feel that their schools are striking the right balance between protecting free speech and preventing hate speech.  These measures remained steady since the previous year.  Furthermore, more than two-thirds (69%) say inviting controversial speakers to campus is a good thing because it stimulates debate and thought while 31% say controversial speakers should be avoided to make sure all students feel safe. 

Before rushing headlong to support one viewpoint, a serious scholar would acknowledge and resolve these contradictory survey results.

The UC Academic Senate should call time out regarding Napolitano’s Free Speech Center.  The U.C. Academic Senate should determine the costs of the proposed Center and then consider alternative uses for these funds. Would fees from administering the National Labs be utilized?  Would the funds be better spent on grad student post-docs and/or on joint research projects between UC profs and lab researchers?  What alternative methods to shape the national debate about free speech could be introduced to better utilize the talents of U.C. scholars?  For example, The Volokh Conspiracy, one of the most widely-read blogs in the Country administered by UCLA Law Professor and First Amendment specialist Eugene Volokh, could provide a possible discussion and publication venue.

My recommendation is to follow the UCLA Daily Bruin comment of UCLA student “garyfouse,” that the time and effort devoted to the Napolitano’s Center “could be better spent protecting free speech on UC campuses, something that is a definite problem.”   

Velma Montoya, Ph.D. (Economics, UCLA) is a former Regent of the University of California.

The politician that runs the University of California wants to give the rest of the nation advice on how to handle free speech.  University of California President Janet Napolitano recently created a national think tank open to discussion of the premise that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees free speech should be modified according to changing student views.  Because “funding for the center will come from the UC presidential endowment, as well as private philanthropic efforts,” Napolitano apparently is subject to no financial accountability to the university she serves as chief executive.

Napolitano named herself Chairwoman of the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, located at the University of California’s Washington DC Center.  Two UC administrators will act as her co-chairs and eight nationally-known trustees, including Barbara Boxer, act as the board.  All but one trustee – a UCLA law student seeking “a process to navigate the [free speech] gray area that we are in right now” – are from outside UC.

The Center will select 20 fellows every year to help shape the national debate about free speech and civic engagement. 

The Center appears to have sprung full-blown from Napolitano’s immediate staff with no review by the faculty-run UC Academic Senate or agenda action by the UC Board of Regents.  A UCLA dean declared “I’m as surprised as you are!” 

A nonacademic, Napolitano is a master of amassing bureaucratic power.  Last year she engineered a change in the University of California Board governance and bylaws so that most questionable decisions raised there are to be decided by the University President (Napolitano).  And she is politically deft, having likely ensured UC’s continuous involvement in managing Los Alamos National Laboratory by partnering with Texas A&M University, the alma mater of the U.S. Secretary of Energy, who will make the final decision.

Her arguments for the free speech Center ring hollow.

Napolitano applies straw men rationales.  She characterizes current constitutional free speech as “free speech Darwinism,” too harsh for today’s snowflakes.  But no thinking professor would introduce To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, without preparing students by discussing the novel’s time and Jim Crow setting.  Napolitano advocates her version of “safe spaces,” specially created places where students “can gather with others of similar backgrounds to share experiences and support one another.”  But students from similar backgrounds currently are not prohibited from gathering together on campus if they so choose.

Napolitano’s main basis for advocating a change in free speech norms is the changed demographics of the University of California student body since UC Berkeley’s 1960’s Free Speech Movement, when 55 percent of students were male and mainly white.  Today’s UC students are 53 percent women; 42 percent are first in their families to attend college; 40 percent of this year’s entering class self-identify as either black, Latino/Latina, or from another underrepresented ethnic or racial group; others raise the issue of their sexual identity. 

Napolitano then links today’s college demographics to the 2016 Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey’s free speech findings -- 72 percent of college students would restrict political speech that may upset or offend members of certain groups and two-thirds of college students would restrict slurs and other offending language intended to offend specific groups of people.    Napolitano combines these findings that “some of today’s students seem less wedded to First Amendment values than previous generations” with changes in college students’ demographics, and implies the combination could curtail the “social Darwinism” of constitutional free speech. 

That is why her administration introduced faculty training to recognize “microaggressions,” everyday expressions about which some students may become frustrated or angry.   Professors should avoid saying America is a “land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” and calling a student “articulate.”

However, alternative explanations of the Gallup/Knight findings readily come to mind.  Many students enter college with inadequate high school instruction in civics and their free speech rights.  And many colleges waive college-level classes in civics and the U.S. Constitution for students with credits in such high school classes, seriously reducing college students’ knowledge about these topics.  For example, What Will They Learn?, the 2017-18 Report of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, finds only 17.6 percent of 1,100 U.S. higher education institutions require a course in U.S. Government or History. 

More importantly, the 2017 Survey of America’s College Students by Hart Research Associates for The Panetta Institute of Public Policy contradicts Gallup/Knight’s free speech findings.  Hart reports a majority (68%) of students feel that protecting free speech is more important than making sure that people do not feel hurt, while 32% believe the opposite.  And a majority of students (64%) feel that their schools are striking the right balance between protecting free speech and preventing hate speech.  These measures remained steady since the previous year.  Furthermore, more than two-thirds (69%) say inviting controversial speakers to campus is a good thing because it stimulates debate and thought while 31% say controversial speakers should be avoided to make sure all students feel safe. 

Before rushing headlong to support one viewpoint, a serious scholar would acknowledge and resolve these contradictory survey results.

The UC Academic Senate should call time out regarding Napolitano’s Free Speech Center.  The U.C. Academic Senate should determine the costs of the proposed Center and then consider alternative uses for these funds. Would fees from administering the National Labs be utilized?  Would the funds be better spent on grad student post-docs and/or on joint research projects between UC profs and lab researchers?  What alternative methods to shape the national debate about free speech could be introduced to better utilize the talents of U.C. scholars?  For example, The Volokh Conspiracy, one of the most widely-read blogs in the Country administered by UCLA Law Professor and First Amendment specialist Eugene Volokh, could provide a possible discussion and publication venue.

My recommendation is to follow the UCLA Daily Bruin comment of UCLA student “garyfouse,” that the time and effort devoted to the Napolitano’s Center “could be better spent protecting free speech on UC campuses, something that is a definite problem.”   

Velma Montoya, Ph.D. (Economics, UCLA) is a former Regent of the University of California.

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