By now, even if you’re new here, you’ve probably heard the bragging litany for UCSB over and over: We have six Nobel Prize winners on faculty, we’re the top public Green School in the nation, one of the top 10 public universities and number two in the world for impact in the sciences. All of these are great achievements, to be sure, and we have every right to be proud of them. But at the same time there is another, less flattering ranking of this school which you probably have not heard of which, in fact, has been almost completely glossed over and ignored here at UCSB, but which is no less important, and about which I am writing to the Daily Nexus in the desperate hope that some members of our community will take notice of: over the summer, our F.I.R.E. ranking was downgraded.
What is F.I.R.E.? F.I.R.E. is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit civil liberties advocacy group that focuses on issues affecting higher education. It was founded in 1999 by Professor Alan Charles Kors and civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate. Notably, F.I.R.E. has no political agenda. In the course of its free speech advocacy, F.I.R.E. has stood up for free expression of a wide range of political opinions, ranging from the very conservative (“affirmative action bake sale” events) to the very liberal (University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill’s controversial comments about ordinary Americans’ responsibility for 9/11). At UCSB alone in recent years, F.I.R.E. has stood up for the “UCSB Confessions” Facebook page, for outspoken conservative author David Horowitz, who spoke here in 2011 amid protests and for a sociology professor who was vocally critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Although F.I.R.E. deals with several important civil liberties issues, including due process, the bulk of its activism is geared toward preserving free expression in the university. F.I.R.E. believes that a college campus, rather than being a place where free expression is limited, should be a place where all ideas (no matter how unpopular or offensive) are up for debate. Questioning one’s beliefs is a basic requirement for the recipient of a liberal education, and is part of a grand and noble tradition dating back thousands of years to the classical Greek scholars. Freedom of speech is not a mere luxury; it is a necessary condition for the university to embark upon its central goal of seeking the truth. If students and professors cannot speak and question freely, it does not really matter how many Nobel Laureates teach at a college — the institution is not functioning as it should.
In the words of current F.I.R.E. president Greg Lukianoff, “Being offended is what happens when you have your deepest beliefs challenged. And if you make it through four years of college without having your deepest beliefs challenged, you should demand your money back.”
Now, on its website, F.I.R.E. has a three-tiered rating system to analyze campus policies and determine whether a university has any prohibitive “speech codes” in place. If a college receives a “green light” ranking, that means that the school has no speech codes that threaten freedom of expression. However, if a college receives a “yellow light” ranking, this means that the school has at least one speech code that either restricts some form of protected free speech or has the potential to be abused. (I myself have seen speech codes specifically marked as by F.I.R.E. “yellow light policies” being used by certain instructors to intimidate students during my time here at UCSB.) If a college has a “red light” ranking, then it has at least one speech code that “clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
For most of my time at UCSB, our school has been assigned a “yellow light” ranking by F.I.R.E., meaning that we had some poorly worded speech codes but nothing that clearly restricted free expression. However, UCSB’s ranking was recently downgraded to red after a letter was sent to students by the school administration which actively encouraged students to report on each other for “acts of disrespect.” (“Who defines respect?” a thoughtful citizen might ask. There are probably a million different definitions of respect.) This vague but sinister proclamation also became F.I.R.E.’s “speech code of the month” for this past September.
What has been the response from UCSB to having been ranked so poorly by such a well-established civil liberties organization? One would hope that our school would immediately recognize its errors and work to correct them. Student media (who are themselves at risk for censorship) would report on our F.I.R.E. ranking, making it known to the general community; Associated Students would pass a resolution condemning the silencing of student voices; Chancellor Yang and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Klawunn would work within the administration to reform speech codes so that they are more conducive to free expression. At the very least, one would hope that UCSB would attempt to dignify F.I.R.E. with an official response, explaining why they feel the current rules are necessary.
Instead, there has been nothing but silence. UCSB faculty and administration have not addressed the concerns of F.I.R.E., nor have our elected representatives in Associated Students, nor have any student media. If the entire point of a university education is to encourage students to develop their critical thinking abilities, then why does the UCSB community as a whole seem completely unconcerned that free expression, the cornerstone of critical thinking, is under attack at UCSB?
These new speech codes appear to have been put in place, at least in part, as a response to the impassioned and divisive debates that UCSB has witnessed in recent years surrounding the proposed financial divestment from Israel. While this is a hot-button issue for many students, myself included, there is no reason to stifle debate for the sake of alleviating some students’ emotional discomfort. In fact, I believe that vigorous and open discussion of the issue is the only chance we have of ever resolving it. Furthermore, as Samantha Harris pointed out in her editorial for F.I.R.E. addressing this new speech code, harassment and violence against Jewish or Muslim students — while very legitimate concerns which unfortunately have a history of occurring at UCSB during debates over divestment — are already punishable by existing legislation.
The mission of F.I.R.E. is one which I wholeheartedly support. During my campaign for Associated Students president last April, I made reforming UCSB’s speech codes (which at the time had only been given a “yellow light” ranking) a central plank of my platform. Had I won, I would have worked tirelessly to rework poorly written speech codes and make expression at UCSB as free as possible. Ideally, I would have liked to see UCSB become a national model for free expression. Instead, we have taken a step backwards towards greater censorship, and no one at UCSB seems the slightest bit concerned. I am ashamed of my school’s utter apathy on this issue.
I am writing this for the Daily Nexus in the hopes of making as many members of our community as possible aware of UCSB’s troubling free speech situation so that we can work together to improve it. If our administration has proven itself to be unresponsive to these concerns, then the responsibility for change lies with us, the students. I am now in my senior year at UCSB and my time here is limited, but some of you are freshmen, and you have four years to make an impact on this community. Perhaps you will be able to succeed where I and the rest of our school have failed you. Perhaps by the time some of you graduate, UCSB students will be able to proudly say that they attend a school which has six Nobel Prize winners on its faculty, leads the world in the sciences and has one of the best records in the nation of encouraging free speech, free expression and free thought among its students.