On Dec. 2, the New University published an editorial lamenting a perceived loss of free speech access on the UCI campus. Although I do not normally respond to the paper's editorial opinions, this issue is of such crucial importance to higher education that I do feel the need to respond to some of the assertions.
The short answer to the editorial is that there is no area on campus where free speech is prohibited. In other words, the entire campus is a free speech zone. We have designated certain locations as "preferred areas for public gatherings," not because we want to limit free speech on campus, but because we want to ensure that such expression can always find a central place to be heard.
First and foremost, UCI is an education institution, and as such we must protect both the academic mission of the campus and individual rights of free expression. So we have established certain guidelines regarding time, place and manner to strike this balance. These guidelines are based on the premise that one's right to free speech cannot intrude on another's right to teach or learn in an academic setting. These guidelines apply both to campus and off-campus groups and are meant to promote free speech while at the same time protecting our primary educational mission. Limiting amplification to one hour a day (from noon to 1 p.m.) does not limit "mass free speech" or "assembly" to one hour a day, but it does prevent any individual or group from setting up on the campus and projecting a particular message all day long, disrupting classes, student events, additional free speech gatherings and other important work on the campus. As an example, UCLA has recently had a number of anti-abortion protests that involves the massive projection of fetal images in such a way that they would be impossible to avoid. UCI's guidelines have been established, then, to the best of our ability to protect everyone's right to free speech, along with the right to pursue one's academic goals without harassment or injurious disruption.
There have been instances where we have revised our practices, despite the consistency of our policies. For example, we have stopped requiring, but still suggest, that students register in advance to use the designated free speech areas. Although registration was initially intended to ensure that groups could be guaranteed a place to gather, in was unconstitutionally restrictive, and the practice has been stopped, thanks to ASUCI. Like the American judicial system, UCI is constantly evaluating its policies and practices to ensure that we're doing the best we can to balance everyone's rights within an environment of sometimes competing priorities. We do prefer that large, amplified public gatherings are held in Aldrich Park or Gateway Commons because these areas can accommodate a large number of people, are far enough away from classrooms to not disrupt the free speech occurring within those walls and allow for bystanders to exercise their choice as to whether they want to be an audience.
This last point is particularly crucial, because free speech is only one of a number of constitutional rights that must be protected, and protection of those rights may not be consistent with becoming an involuntary audience for certain free speech activities. So yes, we do have "preferred" areas for public gatherings, but nowhere on campus do we prevent free speech.
I have a profound respect for the First Amendment, not only because I believe it is fundamental to public education within a democracy, but also because, as Lee Bollinger points out, the Bill of Rights did not delineate our free speech rights, but rather, "... the First Amendment – as we know it today – is an invention of the twentieth century," related specifically to cases involving protest against America's involvement in World War I. As editors of the recently published book, "Eternally Vigilant: Free Speech in the Modern Era," Bollinger and Geoffrey Stone discuss the ways the Supreme Court has gradually defined and expanded the rights we take for granted (they cite the prohibition against falsely yelling "fire" in a crowded theater as the Court's initial limitation to First Amendment protection). The fact that these rights—and their limits—have been and continue to be defined through judicial interpretation, has both deepened my respect for the First Amendment and made me feel particularly protective for its vulnerability.
I am grateful to the editors of the New University for broaching the subject of free speech, because it is so important to all of us. Like the editors of this newspaper, I am also concerned about free speech, not because the campus has identified preferred areas for free speech activities, but because in this new era of homeland security and threats of war, these activities are coming under increasing scrutiny from self-designated watchdog groups like Campus-Watch.org and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, or ACTA (www.goacta.org). Daniel Pipes, founder of Campus Watch, recently published an editorial in the New York Post in which he listed professors whom he determined to be anti-American and urged "outsiders" to intervene and help us return to our proper "civic responsibilities" ("Profs Who Hate America," Nov. 12, 2002). In their report "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It," the ACTA urged much the same thing, citing partial quotes from academics (without source citations and full context) which they place against "public response" to Sept. 11, making American college and university faculty appear un-American. On the Campus Watch website, which boldly claims it is "monitoring Middle East studies on campus," there are lists of faculty and institutions under surveillance by the organization.
As a child of the 50s, this designation of "anti-American" faculty has a decidedly uncomfortable echo. One thing the 60s taught me was that those who are the most critical of our government may also be the most idealistic and passionate about the preservation of American democracy.
If the right is to mean anything in a democratic society, freedom of speech must be extended to everyone, even to those with whom we most vigorously disagree. I believe we should all be conscious of how dependent we are on judicial interpretation as it continues to define these rights for us. We have been fortunate as members of a university community to be able to express our ideas and beliefs in such a safe environment, and I am convinced, after reading Bollinger and Stone's book, that we must all remain "eternally vigilant" to protect this right. I wish to thank, once again, the editors of the New University for their vigilance and for their continued advocacy of this most critical and contested right.
Manuel N. Gomez is the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at UCI.