Rights of Free Speech and Academic Freedom

Freedom of speech is a bedrock value of our constitutional system and is at the core of UCI’s mission.

Universities exist to provide the conditions for hard thought and difficult debate so that new knowledge can be generated and individuals can develop the capacity for independent judgment. This cannot happen if universities attempt to shield people from ideas and opinions they might find unwelcome, or if members of the university community try to silence speakers with whom they disagree. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis advised in his famous Whitney v. California opinion in 1927, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Free speech is often invoked to protect views that are considered wrong or disturbing. This is inevitable. No one tries to censor speech that is popular, comforting or supported by established authorities. But we sometimes forget that many of the views we take for granted were once considered harmful and deserving of censorship and punishment, including Galileo’s heliocentric model of the solar system, antislavery advocacy, Darwin’s challenge to biblical accounts of the origins of humankind, opposition to American war efforts, the teaching of socialism, civil rights protests, critiques of traditional societal norms, risqué or countercultural popular music, and a lot of modern literature.

We extend protections to controversial and even potentially harmful speech to create the conditions for innovative thinking – and because we have learned it is even more harmful to give officials the extraordinary (and inevitably abused) power to punish people for expressing views they do not like. Throughout history, speech that challenges conventional wisdom has been a driving force for progress. Speech that makes us uneasy may compel us to reconsider our own positions. Hearing offensive or even hateful viewpoints provides opportunities for those sentiments to be exposed, engaged and rebutted.

This is why we cannot and will not censor or punish people merely because they express ideas we do not like. We will not deny speakers access to campus venues because of their views. We will protect all members of the campus community and their invited guests and speakers from efforts to silence them through disruptive activities. At the same time, because no one has a right to be free from criticism, we will always ensure that members of the campus community can peacefully protest and express condemnation of views they detest.

UCI also serves society as a place where people work together to create a scholarly community dedicated to rigorous inquiry, evidence-based reasoning, logical argumentation, experimentation and a willingness to reassess one’s perspective in light of new evidence and arguments. These scholarly norms encourage us to engage competing perspectives and learn from those who hold different viewpoints. They also prompt us to speak out in support of each other when members of our community are subject to hateful, discriminatory or inflammatory personal attacks.

If our commitment to freedom and democracy leads us to defend the rights of free speech, our commitment to scholarly inquiry and education leads us to promote norms and practices that enable us to learn from each other in an atmosphere of positive engagement and mutual respect.