In Defense of Campus Free-Speech Legislation


By Stanley Kurtz, Ethics & Public Policy Center, Defending American Ideals August 10, 2017

This originally appeared under the title “Berkeley Chancellor Dirks Mischaracterizes Goldwater Proposal” at National Review Online.

Nicholas Dirks, who recently resigned as chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, argues in a long essay in The Washington Post that universities are “under assault” from illiberal leftist demonstrators, on the one hand, and conservative-sponsored campus free-speech legislation, on the other. Dirks is particularly disconcerted by state legislation modeled on the proposal I co-authored with Jim Manley and Jonathan Butcher of Arizona’s Goldwater Institute.

It’s a neat trick to equate the threats posed by antifa rioters and speaker shout-downs with proposed legislation modeled on the classic defenses of university free-speech (Yale’s Woodward Report and the University of Chicago’s Kalven and Stone Reports). Dirks even confesses that on reading through the Goldwater proposal, “at first blush” its provisions “seem reasonable, even necessary.” Yet he maintains that provisions on institutional neutrality and on discipline for speaker shout-downs are out of bounds. He calls these provisions, “concerted efforts to take direct political control over public colleges and universities.”

This is a serious distortion. In characterizing the Goldwater proposal, Dirks speaks only of the legislature, never mentioning the word “trustees.” Yet the Goldwater proposal works by drawing state university trustees more deeply into the management of free-speech related issues. And of course, trustees are a public university’s rightful governing body. With administrative mishandling of campus free-speech an entirely legitimate matter of public concern, it’s time for university trustees to step up and act as a check on administrative abuse. That is what the Goldwater proposal ensures.

Even then, the Goldwater proposal works with a far lighter touch than Dirks implies. Institutional neutrality has been a pillar of campus free speech at least since the University of Chicago issued its famous Kalven Report of 1967. The idea is that universities should work to remain neutral on controversial political issues so as not to pressure students or faculty to toe an official political line. This is particularly important at public universities, which service taxpayers who hold a wide spectrum of political views. Yet neutrality can never be perfect. Some issues are so central to the university’s daily functioning—a tuition increase, for example—that a school has to take a stand on them. 


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