Survival Over Speech


(Nanette Asimov/The Chronicle)

“Who do you serve? Who do you protect?”

U.C. Davis students chanted these words in unison last January in protest of Milo Yiannopoulos, an Alt-Right activist slated to speak on campus. Since the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, colleges and universities have provided students with a platform to vocalize political beliefs and revolutionary ideas.

While universities and colleges should stay committed to serving as forums for divergent views and intellectual debate, the primary mission of all universities is the service and safety of its students. Speech that intends to or effectively incites violence, spews hate, or threatens the lives of marginalized bodies on campuses must never be considered free.

Universities are home to thousands of students from diverse backgrounds and identities, and must place the protection of its students over that of outside provocateurs. The lives of our students are not a matter of debate. Universities must regulate free speech on college campuses for student survival.

When surveyed, 53 percent of college students deemed diversity more important than the right to free speech, according to a study by Gallup-Knight Foundation in March 2018. Providing speakers such as Richard Spencer, a self-identified white supremacist and neo-Nazi, the space to discuss what he articulates as “the threatened white race” on the UC Davis campus-sponsored radio station KDVS, clearly contradicts our university’s principles of community. Spencer’s speech advocates for the creation of a “white centric country” in the United States, where all other individuals would be relocated or killed, normalizes ideas of genocide, mass extermination, and targeted racial violence against non-whites.  

As 74 percent of students at UC Davis are students of color, it is imperative that students are not subjected to rhetoric that threatens their very existence. It is the sole responsibility of our universities’ administration to ensure student safety over providing a recruiting ground for fascists and white supremacists to voice their venom on campuses. We cannot become desensitized to speech that is inherently violent. We cannot allow hate speech to become normalized. It has no place at the university.

Free speech is not actually “free.” To facilitate and host Free Speech Month in Fall 2017, UC Berkeley fronted $3.9 million for security and organizational fees, according to The Daily Californian. The UC Office of the President (UCOP) agreed to finance half of this cost. While some may feel a heightened sense of safety with the imposition of police force into public space, many students actually feel a heightened sense of discomfort around inordinate numbers of law enforcement.

This cost raises concern of the financial priority of our universities. The almost $4 million would go a long way for student services and resources – programs that face cuts every academic year.

Why are universities more interested in investing in the protection of controversial speakers at the direct expense of the protection and lives of their own students?

Those in favor of unregulated free speech like to remind others of the purpose of the university as a ‘marketplace for the exchange of ideas.’ Similarly, they love to co-opt the UC Berkeley Free Speech Movement as evidence for allowing any and all speakers to have a place reserved for them on campus. However, it is impossible to foster an “exchange of ideas” in these campus-sponsored settings where Milo Yiannopoulos speaks uninterrupted to an audience in a large lecture hall, or Richard Spencer delivers a propagandizing speech over the airwaves. The intention of these controversial speakers is not to educate or facilitate a conversation; these speakers want to provoke public uproar and draw increasing media attention.

The argument that denying certain speakers access to speak at our elite institutions is a denial of freedom of speech is a blatant misinterpretation of the Constitution. Anyone is allowed to voice an opinion. Anyone is legally allowed to hold bigoted and hateful views. Anyone can stand outside the Memorial Union and shout their beliefs until they are blue in the face. What these speakers cannot do, however, is expect our universities to shed valuable time, resources, and money to dedicate a space for them to spew hate speech and threaten student well-being and survival. Free speech is not absolute.

While universities have an undoubtedly imperative role in encouraging different viewpoints to come together, the type of speech that should face regulation is not intellectual, productive, or communicative speech. Universities are institutions of knowledge. Precious space and sponsorship by a university of high caliber should not be afforded to any speaker who denies the existence of climate change, or believes that white people in the United States are under threat.

Universities that actively promote multiculturalism, acceptance, and diversity are in no position to welcome speakers known to incite hate and violence on to campus with university funds. Our campuses must commit to the safety and protection of their students over any other conflicting goal.

Universities must articulate their intention to regulate free speech and to prioritize student safety when determining which speakers are allowed access and space at the university. If university administrations fails to do this work, we will continue to show up and shut down toxic speakers on our campuses.

And I can promise one thing: next time, we will only get louder.


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