Last week, University of California President Janet Napolitano announced the opening of the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement at the UC Washington Center in Washington, D.C. According to Napolitano’s letter in USA Today, the goal of this center is to address “whether and how students’ relationship to the First Amendment has fundamentally shifted from the 1960s — and how to restore trust in the value and importance of free speech among students and society at large.” The founding of the center comes in response to the multiple student protests and violent incidents that have occurred at UC Berkeley and across the UC system in the past year when controversial speakers have attempted to speak on campus.
Yes, free speech is under attack on college campuses nationwide, but establishing yet another bureaucratic apparatus will not solve the problem. This type of response from universities has been a major source of the problem for years. Universities have themselves been the biggest opponents of the First Amendment by installing tiny “free speech zones” on campus where students can exercise university-approved speech as opposed to freely expressing themselves anywhere they please on the campus as the Constitution prescribes.
Worse still, universities have become well-known for instituting policies that outright ban the use of certain words that may be found offensive by others. While seemingly well-intentioned, time and time again universities have chosen what speech is and is not allowed on campus according to their own preferences, even denying student groups with limited government values from hosting speakers or becoming officially-recognized groups.
These responses and policies by universities have fostered an environment on campuses in which the First Amendment is sorely misunderstood by students. Just skim through your local newspaper and you are bound to see an incident of discord on a college campus over a controversial speaker or a student distributing copies of the Constitution.
In fact, even the Department of Justice has acknowledged the absurdity of inhibiting students from exercising their First Amendment rights. Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the Los Angeles Pierce case as an example of how free speech is being restricted on campus. So what is the purpose of a free speech center on the opposite side of the country?
The University of California Washington Center is designed to provide its students and faculty the opportunity to “study, research, work, and live within Washington’s rich cultural, political and international heritage.” It makes sense to have a campus in the capital that allows those interested in politics or law to have access to the resources they otherwise would be alienated from being 4,000 miles away. However, what does not make sense is building a bureaucratic structure 4,000 miles away to address problems at home that we already have the answer for.
The Constitution is clear on the issue of free speech: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
With that said, the only point of discussion on the part of the administrators should be how they will proceed to uphold the law of the land, not restoring trust in said law. It is important to have discussions on the First Amendment and engage in open and civil discourse, I encourage that wholeheartedly.
However, establishing such a center only pays lip service to respect for the First Amendment. It creates more red tape and distance between the students and the administrators who actually have the power to make the simple changes necessary. We need universities taking responsibility for their egregious speech policies, removing their free speech zones, and teaching their students that the First Amendment exists to protect the expression of the opinions that they disagree with, not the speech that is comfortable for them to hear.
At Young Americans for Liberty, we see incidents of restricted free speech on a daily basis. Through YAL’s national “Fight for Free Speech” campaign, we have helped restore First Amendment rights to 590,202 students by reforming 28 unconstitutional campus speech codes.
We need to come together on the issue of free speech. This is not about creating an advantage for libertarian or conservative students. This is about maintaining the right to free speech on public college campuses and creating a level playing field so that all ideologies have a chance to be heard, questioned, and debated. My advice to the University of California system: remove your unconstitutional free speech zones.
Cliff Maloney Jr. (@LibertyCliff) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is the president of Young Americans for Liberty, a non-profit organization based in Arlington, Va., with more than 900 college chapters across the country.
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