UCI’s School of Law Dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, held a presentation regarding free speech on campus last Monday. While navigating this complex topic, Chemerinsky managed to provide resolutions, remain respectful and nonpartisan, and even change my mind on a few things.
During the beginning of his presentation, Chemerinsky alluded to several controversial examples of free speech in relation to the topic of racism. He referred to recent incidents, such as UC Berkeley’s January protest against controversial conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, which culminated in the cancellation of Yiannopoulos’s event. Chemerinsky concluded that, despite the extreme amount of vulgarity associated with Yiannopoulos, he was ultimately protected by the First Amendment. Personally, I despise the way in which Yiannopoulos expresses himself. When it comes to speakers like Milo, I refuse to empathize with them solely based on the rage that their offensive words make me feel. Listening to Chemerinsky’s presentation, however, made me reconsider my own mentality and fully appreciate the need to uphold the protections provided to all by the First Amendment.
As stated by Chemerinsky, freedom of speech is indeed fundamental for academic discourse. Inquiry is part of the process for learning and developing new ideas. The freedom to express our ideas gives us validation and empowers us as independent individuals.
I came to understand Chemerinsky’s argument that all viewpoints can be expressed even if they are offensive to others. He stated that it would be demeaning toward us, the American people, to give the government the power of censorship, because we would lose our voice in the world. Therefore, everyone should have the right to express whatever it is that they believe in.
This is the ideal mentality to have when dealing with these situations. Just because one’s method of thinking is extremely different from others’ does not mean that they should be deemed an outsider or punished for their beliefs. Everyone is unique and our ideas serve as the foundation for our attributes. One’s values comprise their integrity as well as their self-expression. It would be highly immoral for anyone to remove the one power we all hold to fight for what we believe is right — our voice.
Furthermore, I particularly appreciated the way in which Chemerinsky underlined the boundaries of free speech to differentiate it from unprotected speech. Unless speech is provoking or committing anything illegal, it should be allowed. While this information is practical, I also began to feel as though there should be some boundaries involved with this sort of activity if it is going to be legal — the solution was provided to me yet again. His solution consists of universities maintaining time, place and content-neutral manner restrictions. This means that the university will hold specific times and locations for the purpose of allowing students to deliver controversial speech. With regard to these restrictions, the university will also maintain regulations that are strictly content-neutral; this means that the university will not implement rules that will censor one side of the spectrum of free speech but rather, the rules will be identical for everyone. The main objective is to prevent direct confrontation between students with opposing mentalities. While it is unfortunate that obtrusive speech had to be explained to the audience, these stated regulations are successful in promoting equality. It gives students the power to either express themselves or avoid uncomfortable situations. These regulations protect a student’s personal space, and I find this very important, because it actually entitles people to retain respect and peace within their own personal environments. Everyone should have the right to protest or express whatever it is they want as long as they don’t attempt to impose those beliefs onto someone else directly.
This relates to Chemerinsky’s argument that safe spaces, trigger warnings and warnings of micro-aggressions are valuable in providing protection for students. Just because students are free to express anything, does not mean that other potentially-targeted students should have to endure those expressions.
But what happens when students are harmfully exposed to offensive speech or behavior? Chemerinsky argued that instead of punishing offensive speech, college and university administrators should address the concerns of students who feel targeted. This is mature as well as indicative of care and empathy. Students who feel targeted by offensive speech on campus deserve the courtesy of being addressed by the very institute they have chosen to attend. It is a basic responsibility of administrators to make sure that they they use their own freedom of speech to connect with students.
Overall, the topic of free speech is complicated to explain and dwell upon. There are many factors to consider, and very often it is in our nature to retaliate against those with whom we disagree. However, Chemerinsky’s presentation reminded me that the power of speech is a self-defining feature that we should always protect.
Michelle Sosa is a second-year English major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.