UC Irvine chancellor gives 'B-' for free speech on university campuses, others disagree

When Howard Gillman, chancellor of the University of California, Irvine gave college campuses across the U.S. a “B-” rating on free speech during a discussion Thursday, the other panelists in the room were not so optimistic.

Gillman, who has held the office since 2014, explained in a panel titled “The Clash of Ideas on Campus: The State of the First Amendment at Public Universities,” that he would not give college universities a “D” or “F” because most of them are “moving forward just fine,” and he does not see obvious examples of censorship.

The three other panelists at the event in D.C. scored free speech on campus as low as a “D+.”

Stephen Hayes, editor-in-chief of The Weekly Standard, pushed back, saying he would award universities a “C-” or “D+.” “I think universities are less effective because students feel they can’t speak out and don’t want to offend others,” he said. “It destroys the robust debate that universities are created to provide.”

Meanwhile, Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said he would give a “C” to the universities and a “B” to students. “I think it’s the fault of the teachers when they do not help with students’ civic education,” he said.

Though she didn’t provide a letter grade, Alejandrina Guzman, a recent graduate from University of Texas, Austin who served as class president for the 2017-2018 school year, said she observed many underrepresented students at her school and their frustration over free speech issues.

While Gillman’s outlook on free speech was relatively positive, his own university has faced years of media scrutiny due to free speech and civil rights issues.

In June of 2016, Campus Reform reported administrators at UC Irvine tried to suspend their chapter of the College Republicans for an entire year after hosting right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Only after mass right-wing media outrage was the group reinstated, Breitbart News reported. And just last year two pro-Israel events were disrupted by pro-Palestine groups on campus, causing them to be hit with two years of probation, according to the College Fix.

UCI has earned a “yellow light” rating from the campus free speech watchdog group FIRE, suggesting that their Network Use policies, Housing Policies, and Campus Climate are restrictive of free speech. On a separate scale, in the areas of due process, FIRE gave UCI a “D” rating for trials related to sexual misconduct and a “C” rating for nonsexual misconduct cases.

“The notion that we have a general structural crisis is an overstatement,” Gillman said. He added later that “work still needs to be done, but I think it’s better now than it was a couple of years ago.”

The panelists also discussed how the majority of students view hate speech as unprotected speech and blamed teachers for a lack of civics education in the classroom.

Gillman said he thinks it is important not to condescend or dismiss students’ concerns about offensive speech, and to realize that protecting speech is not an intuitive notion — that students must be taught to understand why protecting seemingly dangerous speech is a good thing.

“It’s not their fault that they come to college without knowing the history of free speech or basic civics teaching,” he said.

When asked about hate speech, Hayes said that it’s better to have debate and allow someone to win an argument, than to have the university mandate what speech is not acceptable.

“When I graduated, the previous sentiment was — and it’s almost cliche now — that more speech is the antidote to hate speech. And now that’s controversial,” Hayes said.

Editor’s note: Washington Examiner and The Weekly Standard are owned by the same parent company, Clarity Media Group.

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