Q&A: UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ: ‘Free speech has itself become controversial’

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ, the first woman to lead the nation's top public research university, has declared "Free Speech Year" on campus.
(David Butow / For The Times)

UC Berkeley, home of the free speech movement, has become the nation’s most prominent stage for violent confrontations between the left and the right. This month, conservative speakers Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Steve Bannon all are expected to visit Berkeley, and the campus is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in security costs to prevent violence. Chancellor Carol T. Christ, who has more than three decades of teaching and administrative experience at Berkeley and also served as president of Smith College, said a “combustible mix” of changing youth sensibilities, political polarization and the choice of university campuses as battlegrounds has made protecting free speech more fraught than ever. She spoke with The Times on Wednesday in San Diego, during a break in the UC regents meeting.

You’ve been at Berkeley more than 30 years. Have you ever seen it take such security precautions for speakers?

We’ve never seen a situation like this. It’s very unique. It’s a very different political dynamic where free speech … at Berkeley has become the occasion for the right and left to confront each other. I believe very strongly in Ben Shapiro’s right to speak on campus. I don’t agree with Ben Shapiro. In fact I profoundly disagree with him. But I believe he was legitimately invited by a student group. It’s a really troubling situation. I think we’re in an area which presents both challenges to the law and to university policy when a speaker occasions the university to spend extraordinary amounts of money and take extraordinary measures that are quite disruptive to the university’s main business in order to protect the right of free speech.

What is driving this change?

Free speech has itself become controversial. We have a generation of students now who are much more willing to think about restrictions on speech. There are certainly faculty who also believe that. I grew up feeling the libertarian language of John Stuart Mill was absolutely natural. It’s what I believe. But that’s not true of a lot of students today. They grew up having lots of instructions in anti-bullying, … on what constitutes harassment. They’ve been told strongly and repeatedly that certain kinds of speech are inappropriate. And so they don’t understand the difference between how we say it’s right to act in a community, whether it’s a classroom or a dormitory, and what a public speaker is allowed to say in a public square. So there is a kind of disagreement right now about free speech. I sometimes say ironically that in 1964 it was the students for free speech and the administration was against it; now you’ve got this weird reversal.

What are other changes?

Political polarization. We obviously have a situation in the United States of the left and right finding it harder and harder to talk to each other. And there’s a willingness on both the far left and the far right to engage in violence. It’s a moment that reminds me of the ’60s where you had things like the Symbionese Liberation Army or the Weathermen. There are groups — now I’m just talking about the left but it’s equally true on the right — who have just given up on the political process and feel their important weapon is platform denial, and a willingness to engage violently. And that’s very new.

The third thing in this very combustible mix is, universities are seen as the most important symbolic stage for this confrontation, and Berkeley is No. 1 among all of the symbolic stages in part because of its history with the free speech movement and in part because of its history as a very liberal campus.

That’s why I’ve said it has to be a free speech year. I realize free speech is a process of understanding, and we have to provide multiple occasions for our community to engage with the issue, to think it through. The protections that are enshrined in our Constitution and supported by case law since then often conflict with our values as an inclusive community. Thinking through that tension is a very important piece of this conversation.

Do Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos advance the education of your students?

I believe John Stuart Mill, that it’s really important that all speech, with some very limited exceptions, be permitted and be open. Only in that way do you reveal its mendacity, its triviality. Our belief in free speech is most tested when it is speech that’s odious or abhorrent. I wish our community could not only hold that value but also understand that it’s by showing it up for what it is that we move forward.

What are alternative ways to protest?

When Ann Coulter spoke at Smith College some years ago, the faculty and students wanted me to disinvite her. And I said no. So she came and the students developed a brilliant protest. They filled the auditorium in which she was scheduled to speak – it seats 2,000 people – and every five minutes in her speech, a group of about 100 would stand up, turn their backs, stand silently for five minutes and leave. By the end there was almost nobody there. And that to me is so much more of an effective protest than shouting someone down. Shouting someone down or provoking a violent confrontation just plays into the narrative of the far right.

You’ve spent about $800,000 on security for speakers since the Milo event earlier this year. Is this sustainable?

It’s certainly not sustainable. As I understand it, it’s an unsettled question in the law – what is a reasonable level of expense for an institution to protect the right of free speech? I feel it’s very important. That’s why I’ve committed this money. I believe in the current state of the law, this is our obligation. But it’s not in the long run sustainable. So perhaps we need policies that limit the amount of money that a campus devotes per year to security provisions for speakers that may require them and when that money is used up those are all the events we can put on. This is really an untested area of the law.

We take so seriously the safety of our students, the security of our campus, that we have to prepare for the worst even hoping that the worst won’t happen.

Steve Bannon is coming to Berkeley. What do you think about that?

I want to separate Steve Bannon coming to Berkeley from the whole set of events that the student group (Berkeley Patriot) has been planning for Berkeley. Steve Bannon is someone whose ideas I find reprehensible, but he was a member of our current administration and it should be of interest to many audiences what he has to say. I actually had an offer from two of our faculty to debate him on China policy. I don’t think this is the right moment to do that. He’s a public figure that’s had an important job in the Trump administration. That’s quite different from a set of events over four days that really paralyzes the center of campus because of all the security provisions and really turns the campus into a kind of stage set for a highly conservative set of speakers and events that seem designed to provoke.

Who has been the most controversial speaker in your time at Berkeley, before this latest round of speakers?

There was a speaker making the rounds in the ’90s who denied the Holocaust, David Irving. The thing that’s the really interesting policy issue is at that point we had him speak in a small, really out-of-the-way room as a way of protecting the campus. The legal advice we’ve been getting now is that we cannot exert those restrictions. If we have a room on the campus that has been used, like Wheeler Auditorium, for speakers, we can’t deny that room to speakers on the basis of their viewpoints. We can’t discriminate on the use of space. So that takes a tool away from us in terms of time, place, manner that we have used in the past.

You’ve said before that the safest space is inner resilience. Do too many young people today lack that resilience?

I moderated a faculty panel on free speech last Friday. What was really striking to me was how many times the word “hurt” and “injury” were used by students in the question period. On the one hand, there is a much greater understanding and consciousness of how words hurt. But I believe that the hurt that words do is very different than the hurt that physical aggression does. I made a point about inner resilience at the forum, and a student asked me straight out, in a wistful question, how do you develop this? It’s a lot easier if you’re in your 70s than when you’re 18 or 19.

Twitter: @teresawatanabe


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