Friday, September 5, 2014

From the Free Speech Movement to the Reign of Civility

From: Nicholas Dirks Chancellor
Date: Fri, Sep 5, 2014 at 5:11 PM
Subject: Civility and Free Speech
To: "Faculty; Staff; Students"

Dear Campus Community,

This Fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, which made the right to free expression of ideas a signature issue for our campus, and indeed for universities around the world. Free speech is the cornerstone of our nation and society – which is precisely why the founders of the country made it the First Amendment to the Constitution. For a half century now, our University has been a symbol and embodiment of that ideal

As we honor this turning point in our history, it is important that we recognize the broader social context required in order for free speech to thrive. For free speech to have meaning it must not just be tolerated, it must also be heard, listened to, engaged and debated.  Yet this is easier said than done, for the boundaries between protected and unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between the campus and the classroom, between debate and demagoguery, between freedom and responsibility, have never been fully settled.  As a consequence, when issues are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings, the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation. This fall, like every fall, there will be no shortage of issues to animate and engage us all. Our capacity to maintain that delicate balance between communal interests and free expression, between openness of thought and the requirements and disciplines of academic knowledge, will be tested anew.

Specifically, we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility. Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas. In this sense, free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin – the coin of open, democratic society.

Insofar as we wish to honor the ideal of Free Speech, therefore, we should do so by exercising it graciously. This is true not just of political speech on Sproul Plaza, but also in our everyday interactions with each other – in the classroom, in the office, and in the lab.


Nicholas Dirks


  1. Rarely have a heard such nauseating double-speak. As an alum of Berkeley--I find this offensive and beyond uncivil. It's obscene.

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  2. And as an alum of Columbia's anthropology program, I speak for many of my peers when I say good riddance to Dirks.

  3. I had 0 issues understanding precisely what he was saying, and agree with him.

  4. "we wish to honor the ideal of Free Speech"

    er ... "ideal"? and here I thought Free Speech was a reality, a right secured by the First Amendment.

    Silly me.

  5. Beautiful uncivil retort:

  6. Here are things that are mutually exclusive/diametrically opposed according to this statement:

    Free Speech vs Political Advocacy
    Freedom vs Responsibility
    Communal Interests vs Free Expression
    Openness of Thought vs Requirements and Disciplines of Academic Knowledge

  7. My reaction to this communication which follows immediately after the Salaita affair at UICU, and without any mention of the context of FSM 50 years ago, as well as the present context - published in Inside Higher Ed:

    Isn't it just like a bunch of "liberal", cloistered academicians to defend "civility" at a time when the lid is blowing off of what we have called democracy? Just after the Salaita affair, the Michael Brown murder, when Obama and co. are droning and bombing yet another hapless people with impunity, when the media are totally subservient to corporate interests, when the police who used to carry nightsticks are being armed in our cities and towns with tanks and other sophisticated, lethal military equipment, when we are being spied on by government and mega-corps 24/7, when the legislative and executive are being financed to the teeth by ever-growing corporations at the expense of the rest of us, when more and more jobs no longer even purport to support us, when the influence and funding of giant business are so distorting the concept of education and the idea of an independent scientific community that they are now virtually unrecognizable, when inequality is increasing exponentially, and when the climate is in free-fall, with no leadership at all helping us cope with the problem. So what do we get as relevant pronouncement from the pope of Berkeley? "Why can't we all just get along?" Execrable.

    1. I think the problem is that we quite rightly advocate free speech as an intergral part of acadamic freedom and then we violate academic freedom by an enforcement of political correctness. Let him or her who is without guilt throw the first stone.

      Paul Sonnino

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