Follow-Up: U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks Gets Free Speech Right This Time

Last week I criticized an email from U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks that was either dangerously ambiguous or flat wrong about the scope of free speech.

Chancellor Dirks has just sent a follow-up email, probably prompted by the widespread attention from other blogs that aren't so off-putting and creepy as this one. From a tipster, here it is:

Every fall for the last many years, we have issued statements concerning the virtue of civility on campus. This principle is one of several that Berkeley staff, students, faculty, and alumni themselves developed and today regard as “fundamental to our mission of teaching, research and public service.” To quote further from our “principles of community”: “We are committed to ensuring freedom of expression and dialogue that elicits the full spectrum of views held by our varied communities. We respect the differences as well as the commonalities that bring us together and call for civility and respect in our personal interactions.” For a full list of these stated principles, please see http://berkeley.edu/about/principles.shtml.

In this year’s email, I extended this notion of civility to another crucial element of Berkeley’s identity, namely our unflinching commitment to free speech — a principle this campus will spend much of this fall celebrating in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement.

My message was intended to re-affirm values that have for years been understood as foundational to this campus community. As I also noted in my message, these values can exist in tension with each other, and there are continuing and serious debates about fundamental issues related to them. In invoking my hope that commitments to civility and to freedom of speech can complement each other, I did not mean to suggest any constraint on freedom of speech, nor did I mean to compromise in any way our commitment to academic freedom, as defined both by this campus and the American Association of University Professors. (For the AAUP’s Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, please see http://www.aaup.org/issues/academic-freedom.)

I did, however, express my conviction that in the ongoing debates on campus about these and other issues we might collectively see the value of real engagement on divisive issues across different perspectives and opinions. By “real engagement” I mean openness to, and respect for, the different viewpoints that make up our campus community. I remain hopeful that our debates will be both productive and robust not only to further mutual understanding but also for the sake of our overriding intellectual mission.

Sincerely,

Nicholas B. Dirks

That's quite good. It clarifies that civility is a value and sometimes in tension with free speech, but not a limit on free speech. It also shows how educators can urge the benefits of civility to productive discussion without making civility sound like a vague and arbitrary speech code. Civility is not a prerequisite to free speech, and it is not always sufficient to achieve the purposes of free speech, but it is often a admirable and worthy goal.

My thanks and respect to Chancellor Dirks both for the clarity of this message and for being willing to correct a prior statement, which is often against our instincts to do.

By the way: I also really liked proposed rewording of the email.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

Comments

  1. SirWired says

    And this is exactly what a significant portion of the commenters for the last article said he likely meant. It would have been nice if the last article had been about the vague wording and how it could be (mis)interpreted instead of being built on the shaky premise he was a censorious d-bag and gone on a nice long rant from there.

  2. Dictatortot says

    Unfortunately, SirWired, neither college chancellors in general nor Mr. Dirks in particular have earned much benefit of the doubt here. Ken's premise wasn't particularly shaky in context, and it says a lot about U.S. colleges that none of his assumptions was terribly out of line–far from it. Now that Dirks has cleared matters up, Ken's acknowledgement is totally appropriate … but so were his earlier inferences given the evidence at that time, I'm afraid.

  3. Rick says

    Yeah, he got it right on the 2nd email. My personal jury is still out out on what he'd do when confronted with an actual case that could contravene the theme of the email.

    It's a good start, though.

  4. George Coleman says

    Articles like this makes me think there is hope for the preservation of free speech in the US, but this is a one instance at a large institution in a large metropolitan area. Unfortunately, 60% of Americans live in rural and sparsely populated areas where the reality of Constitutional law is not only different, but it is applied differently on a daily basis. Many times that application varies based on race, religion, social status, age, gender, disability and other differences. Over the course of the last two years, there have been ten-twelve cases of arrest for internet harassment, based solely on profanity laced messages on social media sites. People are being arrested and convicted for posting messages to their own media pages, profanity laced messages posted in the heat of an argument or disagreement. The local law enforcement has an official policy that says that excessive profanity addressed to another individual over electronic media can be the basis of arrest and prosecution for stalking and menacing. The reality of free speech at Berkeley should be the reality of free speech for everyone, everywhere.

  5. Aelfric says

    I always believe the old saw that, absent other evidence, one should never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence. I think Mr. Dirks' first missive was more ham-handed than evil, but as many have noted, in the current collegiate atmosphere, no one can be blamed for taking his words at face value. Good on him for setting the record straight and good on Ken for acknowledging that he did so.

  6. Deniable Sources says

    I did not mean to suggest any constraint on freedom of speech, nor did I mean to compromise in any way our commitment to academic freedom…

    No, those things just sort of happened.

    Did anyone else notice that he didn't actually admit to doing anything wrong? In his first email, he explicitly set free speech and political advocacy at opposite ends of a spectrum, in the same sentence where he did the same with protected and unprotected speech. In this latest email, he said that he wasn't suggesting any constraint on free speech. I guess I agree, in the sense that a strong implication is not precisely a suggestion.

    This man is pulling down a half million dollars a year in exchange for being a weasel with significant executive authority over a formerly well-regarded university. I neither respect this latest email, nor do I believe for a moment he has any deep commitment to free speech or discourse which offends his preconceptions. He's simply done a slightly better job, this time, of cloaking it.

  7. En Passant says

    Deniable Sources September 13, 2014 at 10:34 am:

    This man is pulling down a half million dollars a year in exchange for being a weasel holding an office with significant executive authority over a formerly well-regarded university. [Edit by me]

    Indisputably true as modified. He also has a squadron of legal counsel to vet any public comments he might make bearing on legal or constitutional issues.

    Both of which facts are precisely the reason for the public uproar over his first ditzy missive.

    Whether his previous implicit conflations of "political advocacy" with "unprotected speech" and such were a landslide of "Freudian slips" revealing his likely approach to free speech on campus; or whether they were merely inept statements of a legally and constitutionally supportable approach, the uproar was inevitable.

    Now that he has corrected his former words, and has spoken what he now claims is his position, his office is due two things:

    First, his restatement should be taken as superceding, and therefore criticized only upon its own merits.

    Second, he should be held to his restatement in any future events or pronouncements relating to free speech and civility.

    JMHO: I don't find his restatement offensive. Chancellor Dirks is at least due credit for recognizing that he had slapped his own face with a cold mackerel.

  8. albert says

    "…By “real engagement” I mean openness to, and respect for, the different viewpoints that make up our campus community…" – Dirks
    .
    This is fine if you're trying to decide what color to paint the auditorium, but really divisive issues are usually 'decided' by the opposing groups involved, before any engagement can even be considered. Why would I want to 'engage' a professed fascist on anything? Can I change his mind? Reach a compromise? Try to prevent his speaking? Insist on 'equal time' for the opposition? Or should I trust that rational people will see how untenable his position is.
    .
    No, this isn't about engagement, it's about the fear that others may be influenced enough to take up a cause you don't agree with, or make known the weaknesses or absurdities in you own position.
    .
    "We've got to protect those impressionable college kids, lest we arouse the wrath of the parents (and donors)"
    .
    "Bad speaking guests reflect badly on the college."
    .
    What's lacking here is rational choices by rational people.
    .
    I gotta go…

  9. Deniable Sources says

    En Passant:

    He also has a squadron of legal counsel to vet any public comments he might make bearing on legal or constitutional issues.

    Undoubtedly. None of which would have made it any harder to admit that his words were inapt or inappropriate, which he completely avoided doing. I stand by my entirely disputable personal opinion that he's a weasel, based on strikingly little actual information other than the words that have emanated publicly from the man himself.

    First, his restatement should be taken as superceding, and therefore criticized only upon its own merits.

    Why? His "restatement" doesn't repudiate or withdraw anything he said. It only says that he "didn't mean" the inference that others drew.

    Exactly what did he mean? As you said, it might have been a Kinsley gaffe that unintentionally revealed his true opinions ("didn't mean to suggest" equates to "meant to lie better"), or it might be that he was simply unaware of the furor that such words from a college executive might produce ("didn't mean to suggest" becomes "wow, I hadn't heard about any of the recent free speech controversies or court rulings that would have sensitized people to this issue"). That is, two possible interpretations are that the inference was unfortunately accurate, or that he's distressingly ignorant of something he, in his position, should know acutely well.

    A third possibility, of course, is that he simply meant to state, in the words of his first email, his "conviction that we might collectively see the value of real engagement". I'm not sure that this statement is falsifiable, and I struggle to find in it any actionable meaning. It does have nice words. But those words don't promise not to favor one kind of speech over another. Those words don't promise to defend speech content that offends his own preconceptions or biases. Those words don't promise not to punish speech based on tone or volume. His "restatment", while clearly stating that he did not intend to suggest constraints on free speech, does not state in any way that he, personally or professionally, would not prefer those constraints. Which is more or less the point of the furor over his first email, and what I would have loved to have seen him repudiate.

    I'm not actually offended either. I expected very little from Chancellor Dirks, and I was not disappointed.

  10. Ex-Oligarch says

    Did anyone else notice that he didn't actually admit to doing anything wrong?

    I had the same reaction as you did, Deniable Sources. The premise of the second email is that there is nothing wrong with the first, and that it was merely misinterpreted. That's simply not a credible position, for the reasons you state. And like you, I sincerely doubt that the chancellor would have backed away from his earlier statement if not for the public outcry.

    As a Berkeley alum, I find this entire affair awfully disheartening.

  11. albert says

    @Deniable Sources, and by extension, En Passant:

    I would be shocked, if not awed, to find that Dirks original statement was vetted by _anyone_, let alone a team of lawyers.
    .
    DS: "…Those words don't promise to defend speech content that offends his own preconceptions or biases…."
    True, but I don't think Dirks give a rats proverbial posterior about that. He's a bureaucrat. He wants to avoid controversy. He doesn't want to piss off his bosses. It's going to be _their_ 'preconceptions or biases' that he'll have to worry about.
    .
    Kind of a rocky start for ol' Dirks….
    .
    I gotta go…

  12. Michael Becker says

    I've got $20 says "free speech" goes out the window the first time a group tries to bring in a conservative speaker.

  13. Damon says

    "This man is pulling down a half million dollars a year in exchange for being a weasel with significant executive authority over a formerly well-regarded university. I neither respect this latest email, nor do I believe for a moment he has any deep commitment to free speech or discourse which offends his preconceptions. He's simply done a slightly better job, this time, of cloaking it."

    Yah, and I got called out for calling him a weasel in the previous posting. You're 100% on point Deniable Sources.

  14. I R A Darth Aggie says

    The original email reflects the chancellor's position. The second is a mea culpa.

    One does not attain the chancellorship of a major educational facility without being a wordsmith. He wrote what he wrote with purpose.

  15. L says

    I've got $20 says "free speech" goes out the window the first time a group tries to bring in a conservative speaker.

    Okay, well, on 9/23, the Boalt Hall Federalist Society is bringing in John Eastman to talk about same-sex marriage. Eastman is the chairman of the National Organization for [sic] Marriage. He has called homosexuality a form of "barbarism," and has advocated for overthrowing the government in states that allow same-sex marriage.

    Next month, they're bringing in Bay Buchanan, and in November, Ilya Shapiro. So you'll have a few opportunities to see whether your "bet" pays off or not.

    ETA: Oh – Just last week, Fed. Soc. had John Yoo talking. Of course, he didn't have to go far, since Yoo teaches at Boalt Hall. But, no, I'm sure you're right, they're totally hostile to any and all conservative speakers.

  16. Mercury says

    Gee, that's terrific.

    All that matters however is whether or not Berkeley's deeds match Dirks' (clarrified) words going forward.

  17. Devil's Advocate says

    @Deniable Sources:

    Those words don't promise to defend speech content that offends his own preconceptions or biases.

    Except for that whole "unflinching commitment to free speech" thing and "nor did I mean to compromise in any way our commitment to academic freedom, as defined . . . by . . . the American Association of University Professors." I mean, seriously, have you read anything by the AAUP?

  18. says

    There's a more fundamental problem than all of this. Allowing a need for "civility" to define freedom of speech is like allowing a need for "security" to define freedom of, well, everything. When it comes to freedom of speech, much of it is going to be very un-civil, particularly when the discussion is going to be between polar opposites of the political spectrum, so insisting on civility means allowing constraint of speech — which means that the Leftist screamers and hecklers are always going to win when a conservative speaker appears.

    Of course, that's completely wrong: tossing out the hecklers for their un-civil speech is denying THEM their freedom of expression — according to them — instead of noting that shouting down opposing speech has a long and storied history with, for example, Hitler's SA Brownshirts. Shouting down opposing speech is not speech, it's an ACTIVITY, and as such, it is quite proper to muzzle the hecklers.

    Don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen, when next a pro-Israel speakers appears on a campus near you.

  19. Deniable Sources says

    @Devil's Advocate:

    Except for that whole "unflinching commitment to free speech" thing

    There's a huge difference between voicing a bloodless "unflnching commitment" (a collective one, at that) and actually personally defending the right of someone else to say something you find offensive. Again, I'm not saying his second email was offensive to me or as easily misinterpreted as his first. I'm saying it was semantically void.

    I mean, seriously, have you read anything by the AAUP?

    Well, yes, actually. I've followed the AAUP for years (multiple degrees will do that to you). I re-read the statement referenced in his second email. The statement refers you along to the 1940 statement on Academic Freedom, as annotated through the years, which in turn says absolutely nothing about free speech except insofar as it applies to research and teaching done by university teachers, and as it might have an effect on tenure. The more general question about how this applies to free speech in general (and in fact to the free speech movement at Berkeley, which had nothing to do with tenure or teaching) is unanswered.

    Academic freedom and free speech on campus are related but rather different topics, and it's interesting to note that Chancellor Dirks conflates them so easily.

  20. Wzrd1 says

    I will say that the entire concept of free speech in this nation is fraught with erroneous conceptions.
    Forgotten are the well established legal definitions of what is protected free speech and what is not.
    Remembered is "you can't yell fire in a movie theater", which is an error in and of itself, as that was an example used by a justice, not a limitation.

    Speech is always free, but one may arrive at the consequences in a few cases.
    Speech designed to cause imminent lawless action is not protected speech.
    Speech embracing the violent removal of our government is not protected speech, it is sedition.
    Speech planning the violent removal of our government is not protected speech, it is treason.
    Speech suggesting "second amendment remedies" if one loses an election is a seditious statement and not protected speech.
    The credible threat of bodily harm upon another is not protected free speech.
    Speech about "blowing up the gym", when one is obviously discussing a killer workout is protected.
    Speech about replacing the government in its entirety, via the democratic process is protected.
    Religious speech, for better or worse, but falls away from sedition, treason or threats is fully protected to near insanity levels.
    Speech that is demeaning, insulting or otherwise in poor taste is variably protected.
    Speech, such as "I have a gun and know how to grease my car with it, but whereinhell are the grease fittings?!" is most assuredly protected, but typically is only understood by those who were backyard mechanics of a certain age.
    The last example is a real sentence uttered by myself, as I've long been a backyard mechanic and my peer age group and enthusiasts know full well my complaint. Lifetime lubrication components, where the lubrication fails, it's life is obviously over. ;)

    For the rest, overall, there are few limitations on free speech in our *nation*. Private locations are different, for you most certainly may not say certain things inside of my livingroom without being summarily ejected. That also is protected, as I most certainly do have the right to enjoy my private property undisturbed.
    But, in a public forum, meaning one designed for public usage, such as the great outdoors, civil forums when one is invited (or is offered the opportunity) to speak, a public park, etc, one can speak one's mind (or lack thereof).
    On private forums, homes, businesses, online forums, one has to obey the desires of the host or one can be summarily ejected.

    For the public forum, I've always preferred (and in private ones as well), a courteous debate.
    Always recalling what Sam Clemens said, "It is better to remain silent and be thought the fool, than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt".
    But, I'm also the guy that is more than happy to break our taboo and discuss religion and politics, as long as it's polite.
    Well, save for a couple of occasions where I was, erm, speaking with an Islamist that was captured. But there, I listened, then spoke my piece, which provoked more extreme statements, only to be countered by my asking how particular verses of the Qur'an were in disagreement with the statements, hence an innovation of faith.
    I'll just suggest that the militant then paused, thought quite a bit and a minor debate ensured. With the poor chap finding himself more and more confounded.

    Hey, having a high level reading rate *and* comprehension pays off! :)

    ~~ The greatest weapon to exist has a caliber, but has no muzzle velocity or explosive component. It may have a massive impact.
    For, that weapon is the mind. Something honed by nature, then hopefully, refined by the bearer.
    –Me

  21. W. H. Heydt says

    Apologies in advance for a diversionary post…

    Ken…you are very hard to send e-mail to because I can't find an address for you. I have an e-mail my wife received that is making the sort of vague threats and other mistakes that you so often point to. I would like to forward a copy to you for any comments you may have (such…do not reply).

    Please contact me at whheydthotmail.com

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