Over the course of the past several weeks, our campus has again been forced to confront the question of how we honor and respect the value of free speech when it is tested amid speakers whose messages are perceived to be offensive, racist, inappropriate and inconsistent with the values our campus embraces.
It is true that we hold intellectual inquiry and the free and rigorous exchange of ideas as bedrock principles of institutions of higher education. As a public university, we must respect the rights of all members of our community who wish to express opinion, voice support, critique an idea, or challenge existing notions that frame the nature of interactions among individuals, institutions, organizations and society generally.
The commitment to free speech demands that we respect and accept the right to express points of view that fundamentally diverge from the principles and perspectives we embrace as individuals and as an institution. However, the views of those representing one or even a few organizations, the speakers they invite to campus or their affiliated groups often do not represent the opinions of the other 32,000 students and 16,000 employees on this campus, or the values this university holds dear. Indeed, the ideals of democracy do not guarantee that certain speech will not be objectionable to some, nor should upholding those ideals taint the reputation of an institution that reinforces that freedom guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.
The university maintains a neutral position when it comes to political speech. Yet on occasion that posture of neutrality must be augmented with a counternarrative when certain organizations or speakers use language and tactics that assault the dignity and humanity of our students, faculty, staff or administrators. When those occasions arise, we cannot hesitate to both affirm and defend our community members, even as we respect the free-speech rights of others. We will not be neutral when acts of racism, bigotry, sexism, homophobia and oppression are paraded as sport intended to disrupt the cultural sensibilities of our diverse population. We will not be neutral when speakers and the crowds who support them use derogatory and vulgar language to insult and demean persons in our community on the basis of their race, citizenship status, gender or sexual orientation. We will not be neutral when degrading people’s culture and history of struggle becomes comic relief for local and national audiences who seek to affirm themselves and their ideology by belittling others. That is not who we are as a university, and that is not how we represent ourselves as the ’Eater Nation.
Our humanity cannot be gauged by simply quantifying how often we uphold the rights to free speech in any community. It must also be measured by the efforts we expend to confront the toxic elements in other people’s narratives that violate our individual and collective sense of decency and respect for other members of our UCI family. This is the best of who we are as a university, and while we defend freedom of speech for all who seek to exercise it, we wholeheartedly condemn people who would use their platform to denigrate, insult or berate members of our community for their own political gain.
Thomas A. Parham, Ph.D.
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