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'The Answer to Hateful Speech Is More Speech'

The UC Berkeley chancellor on redefining the terms of free speech on campus.

Carol Christ 


This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Occupation: Chancellor, UC Berkeley
Age: 73
Residence: Berkeley

San Francisco: As we’re speaking, we’re just a few weeks out from Milo Yiannopoulos’s aborted Free Speech Week on campus. What did you learn from that experience?
Carol Christ: Well, let me talk about the two free speech events that we had, because I think the contrasts between them are instructive. First there was the Ben Shapiro event [in September]. That fit my conception of a free speech event. He came, he gave a speech, he answered questions, he left. And I think that the $600,000 investment for security for that event was very important to the campus. It was very important in repairing the reputational damage of a story that says Berkeley doesn’t support free speech—that the home of free speech doesn’t support free speech. Frankly, there is no cost too high to protect the ability of people of very different viewpoints to talk in public without being disrupted by violence. The Milo Free Speech Week that followed was very different. It became clear that it was designed to try to get us to cancel it, because that was the story they wanted to write: “Berkeley Cancels Free Speech Week.” So we decided to engage in this game of chicken. We called their bluff, and a little more than 24 hours before the event, the sponsoring student group canceled it. Of course, I wish that we hadn’t had to spend that money—an estimated $800,000—but I don’t see this by any stretch of the imagination as a victory for Milo and Free Speech Week. I think it was an embarrassing defeat and they lost a lot of face.

How do these invitations work? Can one undergrad form his own organization and invite Steve Bannon to campus?
No, that couldn’t happen. Currently our policy is that you need four students to form a student organization. But I’m forming a Commission on Free Speech to really think through the tension between our obligation to protect free speech and our values as an inclusive community. It’ll have 21 or 22 members and be roughly evenly composed of students, faculty, and administration. And one of the questions I’ve asked that commission to take up is, what size should a student organization have to be? I don’t think it’s right for a really small organization like this to be able to commit the campus to as much disruption and expense as this event involved. There also are unresolved areas of the law. One is, what is a reasonable cost that an institution has to commit in order to protect free speech? Another is, what is a credible threat of violence? And the third thing is, how extensive can the campus be in its time, place, and manner restrictions? Can we say, “No, you can’t speak in the day, only at night, and these are the venues we think we can protect”?

What, if any, other steps is the university taking in the wake of these controversies?
One of the things that we’re going to be doing is creating a series, tentatively called Point-Counterpoint, in which we’ll invite people of sharply divergent views and have a moderator. In a talk on free speech Robert Reich gave the other day, he said he wants extraordinarily smart conservative people with whom to debate, because it makes him a sharper thinker. I think it’s really important for the university to provide a model of civilized discourse.

Some members of the campus community, both professors and students, question whether certain controversial speakers should be allowed to have their day on campus at all. Have universities themselves helped erode the commitment to free speech?
I think this is happening more generally in our society, and it’s not just universities. In fact, I think universities are places for pretty robust free speech. I think what’s called platform denial, or the heckler’s veto, is wrong. The answer to hateful speech is more speech, and I strongly believe in the principles that John Stuart Mill articulated in On Liberty. I think that if you let somebody like Milo—to choose a ridiculous example—speak, the triviality and hollowness of it becomes apparent. If you shout him down, you make him a hero, and you never find out what he would have said that would have been really stupid.

Some argue that hurtful speech should not be protected. Should people’s feelings be the ultimate arbiter of how we proceed as a free society?
I talk a lot about how important resilience is. The trouble with hurting someone’s feelings is that it’s so subjective. When Milo came onto Sproul Plaza, he was holding a sign that said “Feminism Is Cancer.” Well, I’m a feminist, and that didn’t hurt my feelings. I mean, what a silly idea!


Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco 

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