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February 24, 2018

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Are U.S. college campuses free speech zones? Experts talk it out at UNLV

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Jim Wilson / The New York Times

A heated discussion at the University of California, Berkeley, on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017, accompanies the visit of Ben Shapiro, the latest in a line of conservative speakers to roil the campus.

When administrators at the University of California-Irvine set out to update the school’s policies on how to handle appearances by divisive or unpopular speakers on campus, they set a goal of completing their work in three months.

That was 10 months ago, said UC-Irvine’s chancellor, Howard Gillman, and the staff is still at it.

Appearing during a symposium on free speech Tuesday at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, Gillman outlined some of the complexities involved in balancing the university’s mission to allow expression across the political spectrum with its obligation to maintain security on campus. He said any university that wasn’t attempting to establish clear and comprehensive policies on the issue was risking legal ramifications at a time when free speech issues have led to violence on campuses and a number of organizations have sued over controversial speakers being banned from making appearances at colleges.

Although campuses largely are perceived as places where the free expression of ideas is part of the core mission, Gillman and other experts at the symposium said the reality is that the issue is complicated.

As shown by incidents such as rioting at UC-Berkeley over alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’ college speaking tour and violence at Middlebury College over an appearance by libertarian social scientist Charles Murray, today’s toxically divisive political environment has left universities needing to provide extensive security for polarizing speeches.

Mark Yudof, president emeritus of the University of California system, said UC-Berkeley spent $600,000 last year on security for a speech by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, part of a $4 million overall security bill for events last year.

“There is a major message from UCB: Free speech is not free,” he said. “It turns out to be very expensive.”

But should universities ban speakers? Or establish restrictions against hate speech?

Gillman said his response to those who have sought to outlaw hate speech was to ask a question of his own.

“If you really give me or our mayor or our governor or even our president the power to prosecute people (for hate speech) … what are the chances they’re going to go after the people you think are causing problems, and not target you?” he said.

Citing the civil rights movement, which was accused of inciting violence by its opponents in attempts to prohibit its activities, Gillman said hate speech restrictions could be used to stifle reformers trying to change the status quo for the better.

“It’s always in finding the voice that’s been silenced where we’ve made social progress,” he said.

Yudof alluded to the civil rights movement in addressing another approach to allowing polarizing speakers — making them pay the costs for security. Had Dr. Martin Luther King and his followers been required to fund security fees, he said, they wouldn’t have had the means.

“But can you differentiate between that and provocateurs who want a riot to start? That’s a very different set of circumstances,” he said.

Yudof, who also served as chancellor of the University of Texas system and as president of the University of Minnesota, said it was critical for universities to establish protocols for handling controversial speeches. Among them: getting intelligence about the speaker’s supporters (“You’ve got to figure out who’s going to show up, how many are there and are they going to be armed with with bazookas”) holding discussions with law enforcement, student leaders and campus staff, including a university diversity administrator, and establishing a chain of command for decision-making.

“This is a difficult transitional period in higher education, but I think we’ll get through this,” he said. “Eventually, these complex organizations will adapt.”