California state schools lead the way on free speech

Californians rightly pride themselves in leading the nation in numerous areas, from their stewardship of the environment, to embracing diversity and multiculturalism, to their media and technology sectors. They should be equally gratified by their unique state laws which exemplify the best of what higher education could be in America and explicitly bar free speech restrictions at both public and private universities.

New data from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) show, however, that self-censorship and the impulse to embrace cancel culture on collegiate campuses has become alarmingly high across the state. The FIRE survey gathered responses from over 3,000 students from 13 schools in the prestigious University of California system, the California State system, and private research universities like Stanford and the Claremont McKenna colleges.

A vandalized Bank of America office is seen after a student protest turned violent at UC Berkeley during a demonstration over right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos.
REUTERS/Stephen Lam

The survey reveals that today, leaders and students of many California colleges and universities are far too likely to support repressing speech instead of promoting it. The outliers? Mostly those in the California State system: the nation’s largest four-year public university system.

There are appreciable differences between the state’s two major university systems. The University of California is known for focusing on students who have strengths in research and theoretical studies, while the California State University system is generally more focused on practical applications and non-research oriented career candidates.

Fifty percent of students in California reported occasional or more regular self-silencing when asked if they felt they could not express their opinion on a subject for fear of how students, professors, or administrators would respond, and 18 percent reported doing this fairly or very often. This is deeply disturbing, as colleges and universities should be places where beliefs are challenged and ideas flow freely.

The impulse to censor varies significantly across the state: 56 percent of students at UCLA and 46 percent at Cal State-Fresno admitted they limit sharing their thoughts occasionally or more often. At UC Berkeley (47 percent) and Santa Cruz (48 percent), nearly half of surveyed students reported not asking questions or sharing their views in school. While at Stanford University, 63 percent of students reported silencing themselves.

A high percentage of students in California’s largest and most prestigious universities are also in favor of shouting down or disrupting speakers or any ideas that they consider controversial, threatening or inappropriate. Unsurprisingly, 81 percent of students at Berkeley believe that there are cases where shouting down is appropriate. The numbers drop with Stanford at 68 percent, Santa Cruz at 68 percent, and UCLA at 63 percent. The Cal State universities are at the other end of the spectrum with a lower tolerance for shouting down speakers: Los Angeles and Fresno are both 60 percent.

When it comes to blocking their peers from attending an event or speech, 59 percent of Santa Cruz and 53 percent of Berkeley students find this acceptable. Students at UC Davis (39 percent) and UCLA (42 percent) are traditionally less activist. Claremont McKenna sits at 37 percent, but the schools in the California State system are even better than their private or University of California system counterparts. Only 26 percent of Cal State-Fresno and 35 percent of Cal State-Los Angeles students believe there are cases where blocking others from listening to the thoughts and ideas of a guest is acceptable.

Recent years have seen an uptick in real violence over schools hosting particular speakers, and the University of California schools would do well to look at their California State counterparts for guidance. Almost a third of students at UCLA (27 percent), UC Davis (25 percent), Riverside (26 percent), Santa Cruz (32 percent), and Berkeley (27 percent) claim that ideas and speakers on campus could be so dangerous that it could warrant violence. The numbers are very similar at Stanford (28 percent). Once again, the numbers drop appreciably at Cal State-Fresno — just 15 percent — and Cal State-Los Angeles is right below the UC schools at 26 percent.

While California and its institutions of higher education have earned their reputation as national leaders on many fronts, their leadership position will fade quickly if the free exchange of ideas remains under threat. Civic and educational leaders should turn to the California State system for direction in how to better promote the free exchange of ideas on campus. California’s elite schools should emulate the California State system and promote open discourse. This would ensure the continuation of the numerous breakthroughs and achievements that California’s remarkable schools have become known for over the past century.

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