Colleges Should Keep Their Free Speech Policies Open to Interpretation

Photo Illustration by Diana Viera / elDon
Photo Illustration by Diana Viera / elDon
Photo Illustration by Diana Viera / elDon

By Itzel Quintana

The UC Board of Regents may change its freedom of speech policy to protect students from religious, ethnic and gender bias.

While rewriting rules in an attempt to protect marginalized groups from hate crimes is progress, the policy could negatively impact students by not allowing them to voice their opinions and beliefs.

The gray area between constructive expression and hate speech makes it difficult for policy makers to respect constitutional rights to free speech while still guarding students’ sensibilities.

The board revisited the 50-year-old policy after several intolerable acts were committed against students this year.

In January, a vandal defaced a wall and doorway of a Jewish fraternity house at UC Davis with red swastikas. The leaders of the fraternity believe the act was in retaliation for advocating for Israel.

Less than a month later, a Jewish candidate for student government at UCLA had her credibility challenged based on her affiliation with religious groups on campus.

Both acts led to discussions among UC students, staff and officials about blurred lines between government and religion, ultimately leading to the Regents releasing a policy statement that attempted to define what constitutes hate speech.

The Regents denounced intolerant behavior directed toward any religious, ethnic or gender group.

Intolerant behavior was defined as “unwelcome conduct motivated by discrimination against, or hatred toward, other individuals or groups.”

Because the proposed update did not directly address anti-Semitic acts on UC campuses, many criticized the statement calling it “milquetoast and meaningless.”

The Board of Regents has since withdrawn its statement and will release an updated proposition soon. Some critics of the withdrawn policy urged the Board of Regents to adopt the U.S. State Department definition of anti-Semitism.

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By including definitions, however, freedom of speech regulations may become authoritarian and the Board would be limiting students’ First Amendment rights by not allowing expression of their opinions and ideas, regardless of the subject.

By endorsing one idea and suppressing another, the Regents are controlling the message.

They run the risk of defeating the purpose of higher education by limiting the exploration of controversial ideas.

Instead, the Board should try to model its policy after the one we have here in the Rancho Santiago Community College District.

RSCCD allows for full freedom of expression by designating certain areas as public forums where students, employees and members of the public are allowed to have their voices heard.

The district also provides bulletin boards where printed materials can be posted and permits students to wear “badges, buttons and other insignia.” RSCCD’s policy is not limited to those forms of expression, making it more flexible in comparison to the Board of Regent’s upcoming policy.

Colleges should encourage students to practice their critical thinking skills through constructive and thoughtful debates.

Instead of looking into State Department definitions, the Regents should emulate policies supporting free speech, such as RSCCD’s.

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