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News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

UC President Napolitano: 'The First Amendment doesn't have an exception for obnoxious speech'

by Julia Paskin and A Martínez | Take Two®

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WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 29: Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California, speaks during a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on July 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee is examining the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, focusing on combating campus sexual assault. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images) Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

The debate over freedom of speech on college campuses has reached a fever pitch, with UC Berkeley playing host to a particularly contentious battleground.

Last month's Free Speech Week, organized by a conservative student group, had a line-up of controversial guests like former Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulos. 

In the end, the event didn't materialize as planned but it did manage to sparked a lot of conflict on campus, and it cost Berkeley and the UC system hundreds of thousands of dollars.

To find out how the UC's are managing all this, Take Two's A Martinez spoke with system President, Janet Napolitano.

What defines free speech in a university setting?

Well I think free speech is exactly what the words portend. Hopefully, it puts something into the academic or educational conversation. That it is fact based and evidence based. That it permits civil disagreements on all sides. But I fully recognize that free speech, particularly on a university campus, is very passionate, very polarizing, and very political.

How does free speech on campus differ from other environment?

I think campuses are crucibles of free speech. They have been historically. They are where you have students, you have faculty, you have staff… These have always been centers of debate. And particularly in polarized times like the one we live in now.

Are there limits to what can be protected under free speech?

There are limits in terms of personal attacks as delineated by the supreme court. But those limits are at the boundaries. University campuses should be places where free speech is expressed and acknowledged. You know, one common misconception is that free speech doesn’t encompass hate speech. And in fact, the first amendment doesn’t have an exception for obnoxious speech. It doesn’t have an exception for hate speech. It’s one of the key protections in our bill of rights and the university has a keen value placed on it. That’s why you have someone like a Milo come on campus.

You’ve said that Milo Yiannopoulos is more of a provocateur than someone interested in discourse… If that’s the case, how do you foster communication?

Well, Milo is a particularly difficult and aggravating case because he is a provocateur. He’s not really interested in having a debate. But I think that the way to handle him is to allow him to speak and then put on panels and have invitations to other, more thoughtful speakers who can express a wide range of opinion and do so civilly.  

That’s what they did at Berkeley in the week or two preceding Milo. The chancellor hosted a panel with, I think it was 5 speakers, from a range of political viewpoints to discuss a range of controversial issues. And they do so in a civil way. And brought their best arguments to bear. That’s when freedom of speech on a college campus is best represented. However, we’re still going to have the provocateurs like Milo in this environment.

In light of Berkeley's history as a battleground for the free speech debate, what’s the university's role in 2017?

I think it is to educate our students as to the meeting of the first amendment. It is to prepare our students to engage in discourse and to be able to make good, solid arguments. The answer to hate speech in a way, is more speech. And then, obviously, to protect the safety and security of students, faculty, and staff when you have somebody like a Milo come on campus.

What is your role as president of the UC system in managing all this as?

One of them is purely financial. The security costs associated with Milo’s Free Speech Week were high, and so the Office of the President, my office, in these extraordinary circumstances is helping to foot the bill for that. And the other is to make that our campuses, and that our chancellors have clear guidance and policies on their campuses for speech and how student groups bring speakers on campus and so forth.

How much longer can UC financially support these kinds of events?

That’s a really good question because the costs were high and is that sustainable over the long run? Does the university consider some kind of cap on security costs? It’s difficult see how you would implement that. So, I guess where I end up is that freedom of speech is not free and this, unfortunately, is a cost the university will need to bear.

BONUS CONTENT: Napolitano on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ decision to rescind the Obama-era rules about investigations in accusation of sexual assault.

You’ve been very vocal that it weakens protection around sexual violence on campus… How do you expect the UC’s to move forward?

We intend to maintain our existing framework which we just redid, in terms of how we handle these cases, and how we investigate them and adjudicate them, and the sanctions that we apply for them. We will continue to use the preponderance of evidence standard. We will continue to enforce the California law on affirmative consent. In other words, we don’t intend to make any changes in light of the Secretary’s recent pronouncement of Title IX.

Does that put California in a position to once again buck against the federal government?

I think that even the guidance that the Secretary has issued in the interim is somewhat murky both from what’s-a-good-policy standpoint, but also, for clarity’s sake, we’re going to keep on with our current standards. And once the Secretary announces how they’re going to proceed with formal rule making, and notice-and-comment, we intend to submit some comments to that.  

To listen to the interview with Janet Napolitano, click on the media player above.

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