Walking the free speech tightrope: how to balance competing voices with campus safety

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Gary S. May is the chancellor of the University of California, Davis.

Note: The following op-ed was written prior to Tuesday’s protests against a student-organized far-right speaker event on the UC Davis campus.

In today’s highly charged and politicized environment, free speech has become both a weapon and a shield. Increasingly heated and divisive debates about free speech and hate speech are playing out at college campuses across the country. But at universities, free speech remains at the heart of our mission — even when we may profoundly disagree with its content. 

At the University of California, Davis, we’ve seen recent hate speech targeting Black Americans, Jewish people, Muslims, Asian Americans and the LGBTQIA+ community. We’ve seen outside groups with their own agendas come to campus with the intention to disrupt and cause damage. We’ve heard calls from students, faculty and staff who want to ban those who express ideologies with which they disagree

Three-quarters headshot of a Black man in a grey suit.

Gary S. May, chancellor of the University of California, Davis

Permission granted by Erin Garcia


The desire to ban the expression of these ideologies stems from behavior that goes further than speech. The FBI reported last year that hate crimes are on the rise nationally. And the Anti-Defamation League reported antisemitic behavior had increased 34% year over year, with 2,717 incidents nationwide in 2021. That’s the highest number seen in nearly half a century.

Yet, we cannot close off our campuses to people and views we disagree with. We cannot isolate ourselves from bullies or from words that are hurtful, mean-spirited or offensive. Freedom of expression is vital to the higher education mission. 

College campuses have played a historic role in freedom of expression and students have been central to debating and protesting some of our nation’s most hotly contested issues. Consider the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and Occupy Wall Street.

There are many good reasons the right to free speech is enshrined in the First Amendment. Free speech allows people from marginalized communities to have a voice. That was certainly true during the civil rights movement, which fought to eliminate segregation and provide greater equality for African Americans like me. Its hard-won gains largely relied on the right to freedom of expression and the freedom to assemble and peaceably protest — without property damage or violence.

On the other hand, those same free speech protections also extend to those with abhorrent views who choose to spread hate.

Let me be clear: I do not condone hate speech or violence. Hate speech and hate incidents are distressing for everyone in a campus community, especially for people who are personally targeted by antisemitic, racist or other hateful words and behaviors. 

At public universities, upholding free speech protections is not just the right thing to do. It’s required by law. That’s why, at UC Davis, student organizations bring speakers with diverse — and sometimes controversial — perspectives to campus. It’s why our campus provides an open forum for many views, ideas and opinions, including those that some may dislike or find offensive. 

Here are three things I’ve learned about navigating the complexities of free speech in today’s fraught climate. 

First, we’re never going to please everyone, but we can make decisions consistent with our higher education mission. There’s an intrinsic connection between fostering a teaching and learning environment and allowing freedom of expression. As institutions of higher learning, we create spaces where students are introduced to and can debate many different ideas and viewpoints. Through this process, students develop critical thinking skills to identify disinformation and discern which ideas will contribute to the advancement of truth. This is a powerful way to disarm the influence of hate speech.

Second, we must make comprehensive plans that allow speech while protecting the campus community from those who want to do harm. We’ve seen incidents on campuses across the country, where free-speech-related protests devolved into violence. That includes Penn State canceling an October speech on campus with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes following confrontations between protestors and chemical irritants being sprayed into the crowd. In 2017, Molotov cocktails were launched at police during a protest against a scheduled appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley.

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