Op-Ed

UC's PC police

Is the University of California putting unfair limits on free speech by faculty?

Calling affirmative action "racist" is an example of a racial "microaggression," says the University of California administration. Other examples of supposed microaggressions: "America is a melting pot," "I believe the most qualified person should get the job," "Gender plays no part in who we hire" and "America is the land of opportunity."

Deans and department chairs might come across these claims in seminars, where they learn how to "enhance department and campus climate." Professors and teaching assistants might find them online, on UC Web pages that provide recommendations for instructors.

It's clear that UC wants to prevent such microaggressions, which the Academic Personnel and Programs Department defines as "slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership."

"Microaggressions," it asserts, are "one form of systemic everyday racism."

UC also argues that microaggressions are especially harmful in the classroom because they may "create a hostile learning environment." UC — and the federal Department of Education — view the creation of a "hostile learning environment" as the basis for legal liability and a violation of personnel policies.

Some people are indeed upset by criticism of affirmative action, or claims that America is the land of opportunity. But universities are places where people must be free to express their ideas, even when others find those ideas offensive. Administrators should not be pressuring professors, graduate students and others to censor themselves.

Despite the clear implications of the microagression materials, UC denies that it wants to prevent people from voicing certain views.

A university spokeswoman wrote to tell me: "To suggest that the University of California is censoring classroom discussions on our campuses is wrong and irresponsible. No such censorship exists. UC is committed to upholding, encouraging, and preserving academic freedom and the free flow of ideas throughout the university. As such, the media characterization of voluntary seminars for UC deans and department heads about campus climate issues — similar to seminars at university campuses throughout the country — is inaccurate.

"Contrary to what has been reported," the message continued, "no one at the University of California is prohibited from making statements such as 'America is a melting pot,' 'America is the land of opportunity,' or any other such statement. Given the diverse backgrounds of our students, faculty and staff, UC offered these seminars to make people aware of how their words or actions may be interpreted when used in certain contexts. Deans and department heads were invited, but not required, to attend the seminars."

But that defense is unpersuasive. Say you are a UC employee without tenure: a young professor, an adjunct lecturer, a teaching assistant. Your employer has repeatedly stressed the need to maintain a welcoming campus climate and to promote diversity.

Indeed, your employer makes "contributions to diversity and equal opportunity" — such as "research … that highlights inequalities" — a factor in employment decisions, according to its academic personnel manual.

Now your employer tells you that expressing certain views is tantamount to racial aggression, micro or otherwise.

Is your reaction, "No problem, I can write and say whatever I think is right about affirmative action or meritocracy — after all, people were only invited, not required, to attend the seminars where my opinions were condemned as a form of racism"?

Or would your reaction be, "If I want to keep my job, I had better avoid the views that my employer says are potentially 'hostile, derogatory, or negative'"?

Of course, university employees, like other employees, should be polite to one another, as well as to students. The university could and should encourage healthy classroom environments by discouraging personal insults. And as a UC faculty member, I generally try to avoid working my own political views into classroom discussions, though I'm open about those views in my writing and in conversation. (UC's condemnation of microaggressions isn't limited to the classroom.)

But UC isn't evenhandedly trying to prevent insult or to keep class discussions balanced. Instead, it is condemning the expression of particular viewpoints — by faculty and graduate students, not just deans and department heads — about deeply important issues.

American universities should be open to arguments defending race-based affirmative action — and to arguments condemning race-based affirmative action. They should be open to speech pointing out America's flaws, and to speech arguing that America is the land of opportunity. They should be open to speech condemning or defending religiosity, to speech criticizing or praising feminism, to speech supporting or opposing same-sex marriage.

Universities shouldn't teach administrators, professors and graduate students that certain ideas are too "aggressive" for candid discussion.

University administrators have a duty to protect freedom of discussion, whether in the classroom, the faculty lounge, scholarship, blog posts or op-eds. In this instance, they have failed in that duty.

Eugene Volokh is a professor at the UCLA School of Law.

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