Will COVID-19 curtail campus free speech?

August 10, 2020

By Aaron Orlowski

Michelle Deutchman is the executive director of the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. Steve Zylius/UCI

The free speech movement was born on college campuses in the 1960s as students protested the Vietnam War and voiced their support for civil rights. But what will happen as the COVID-19 pandemic suppresses in-person campus gatherings, and as discourse increasingly moves online? The University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement was formed in 2017 to foster dialogue about these kinds of free speech issues, and it’s housed at UC’s Washington, D.C. location. UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman is the co-chair and Executive Director Michelle Deutchman is based here at UCI. In this edition of the UCI Podcast, Deutchman discusses her views on how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting campus free speech, plus the future of campus protests in this new environment.

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Transcript

AARON ORLOWSKI, HOST

The free speech movement was born on college campuses in the 1960s as students protested the Vietnam War and voiced their support for civil rights. But what will happen as the COVID-19 pandemic suppresses in-person campus gatherings, and as discourse increasingly moves online?

From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Aaron Orlowski, and you’re listening to the UCI Podcast.

To learn more about the pandemic’s effect on free speech, especially on college campuses, I reached out to Michelle Deutchman, who’s the executive director of the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. The Center was formed in 2017 to foster dialogue about free speech issues, and it’s housed at UC’s Washington, D.C. location. UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman is the co-chair and Michelle is based here at UCI. Michelle, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.

MICHELLE DEUTCHMAN

Hi Aaron. Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited.

ORLOWSKI

Well, there is so much happening today in the world that intersects with questions of free speech. There’s the pandemic and the recent protests over police brutality, and of course in the long term, this ongoing shift to online culture. But I want to ask you about the pandemic first. So university activities moved largely online this spring, and it looks like that will be the case for a lot of the foreseeable future. So what happens to students’ ability to speak freely when they’re increasingly interacting through the internet?

DEUTCHMAN

You know, Aaron, that’s a great question. And I actually think it’s one of the kind of key questions of the moment and it’s one that I think we don’t quite yet know the answer to, certainly not in a definitive answer, because this is all a part of a grand experiment. And I think we’re going to continue to see how the movement online has impacted various aspects of higher ed, including dialogue and debate. In terms of the classroom, I’ve talked with a lot of experts and stakeholders who are concerned that remote learning will have a detrimental impact on discourse. We’re overwhelmed with challenging conversations on polarizing topics that are hard enough to facilitate in person. And I think the concern is that it will become even more difficult to facilitate them online. Others, I think, have expressed concern that there’s a lot of studies that show when people interact online, sometimes they showcase less empathy because the person who’s speaking can not always see the impact of their comments on others.

So I think there are definitely reasons to be concerned. At the same time, I think there is some reason for hopefulness. I was on a call yesterday with the Center’s VOICE grant recipients. That’s our valuing open and inclusive conversation and engagement initiative. And some of the participants were really lauding opportunities that remote learning provides, vis-a-vis expression. For instance, in an in-person setting, right, the major vehicle to participate is you raise your hand and you speak aloud in front of others. And some of the VOICE recipients were talking about how remote learning platforms, because of the chat function, because of the Q&A function, because of the ability to use symbols and emojis like a thumbs up to show support for an idea or a claim, that actually had me provide more opportunities for different ways for students to participate.

ORLOWSKI

So on the one hand, students may not have as much empathy when they’re communicating online, but on the other hand, potentially those folks who don’t speak up as much might be able to speak up more in a medium in which they feel comfortable.

DEUTCHMAN

I think there’s going to be, exactly, both positives and negatives. And I think a critical piece is equipping faculty and students, grad students, in particular with skills to facilitate these tough conversations. And I think that’s something that universities can do a better job of, whether we’re looking at in class or online. And the same goes for students. Learning how to use your voice is a skill. It’s a muscle that has to be flexed and it needs to be practiced. And I think that needs to be sort of more integrated into life on campuses. How do you do that as a student? How do you do that as a teacher? How do you do that as a leader?

ORLOWSKI

Stepping back a little bit because the internet is the context for this conversation right now. We’re talking about remote learning and that’s communication that happens over the internet. How has the internet shaped discourse on college campuses in your view?

DEUTCHMAN

Well, I’m going to confess that the internet did not come into being until I was well into my junior year in college. And even then it was a huge production to have to use it. So it’s hard for me to fully imagine all the ways I think the internet shapes discourse on campus, but I’ll share a few of my thoughts. I think that the internet of course expands our knowledge about the world and our access to that knowledge. But I also think that it can have a limiting component, as well. And I think that’s the part that concerns me when we talk about discourse on campus. It used to be that you really needed to rely on peers and professors and administrators to get information about current events or your academic discipline. But now you can be in your dorm room and create a bubble where you’re only allowing in certain kinds of information and viewpoints.

And in that way I think it could be very limiting. And I also think we have this sort of soundbite culture, 24-7 news cycle, time is at a premium, and the internet and social media contribute to that. And I think when we’re only using a limited number of characters to express ourselves, I think it’s hard to get to the nuance. And I think a lot of these issues are kind of like onions. You’ve got to peel back all of the layers to get to the heart of the matter. And you might not be able to do that in 30 seconds.

ORLOWSKI

So you’re saying that when Twitter increased the character limit from 140 to 280, that did not allow us to speak with full nuance on the internet.

DEUTCHMAN

Some may disagree with me, but I need more characters to be nuanced. Again, I don’t want to be a downer. I think again, there are also positives. I mean, I think like we talked about before, when it comes to discourse, the internet offers diverse avenues for expression and one of them is of course, what we’re engaging in, which is podcasting. And I have seen a lot of students use this medium. Three of our VOICE grantees have kicked off different podcasts on different campuses. One through the UCSB daily newspaper called Now We’re Talking, one from the Blum Center on Poverty, one from some San Diego students who founded something called Triton’s Voice and they have a podcast on activists in progress. So again, I think that it’s a, it’s a balancing act, but I think there are things to be concerned about, but I think we have to also focus on some of the positives.

ORLOWSKI

And I don’t want to focus unduly on the things to be concerned about either, because as you mentioned, students are taking to internet tools to express themselves in new and interesting ways. Are you also worried about students potentially self-censoring, though, based on the environment online?

DEUTCHMAN

I mean, yes. I’m always concerned about self-censoring. Though, I will say that when we use the word self-censoring, it can mean so many different things. In some cases we might be happy that people self-censor. I’m sure people are happy that I don’t say everything that comes to my mind. So I think, I just want to note that when we talk about the concerning self-censorship, it’s this fear or feeling intimidated that if you share your viewpoint, then you’ll be potentially shamed or people will try to cancel you as part of cancel culture. And I do think that is very concerning, about sort of the narrative that’s being written about what voices and ideas are permitted. And if you have an idea that is sort of outside, whatever those bounds are, that there could be repercussions.

ORLOWSKI

So let’s, let’s talk a little bit about how we uplift the voices of especially marginalized groups, which is so important in this day and age, as we’re increasingly seeing. What can we do in the digital conversation to try and give those voices more space?

DEUTCHMAN

I wish I could tell you that I have the answer to this, but I think that one of the things that’s happening out of what’s happening in this country, the major civil unrest, following the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Briana Taylor and others is forcing society, including higher education, to really reckon with the role it’s played and continues to play in furthering systematic racism. For instance, there have been a lot of voices that have been urging the removal of Confederate monuments and urging name changes for institutions of higher learning for a long time. And all of a sudden we’re seeing more traction and response in a different way. I think five years ago, Princeton would have been fairly dismissive about pulling Woodrow Wilson’s name. And so I think we’re going to continue to see that momentum. But then I think it’s incumbent on everybody to be intentional when we’re thinking and planning about how we are going to showcase voices that are not normally heard and how that’s going to happen on every level.

That’s in hiring practices, that’s in curriculum, that’s in talking with your trustees, that’s in the speakers that you choose when you’re doing a program. And I do think that the digital platform may help in this way and that we all won’t be as limited by geographic restrictions and that there are increased opportunities to amplify those voices. But I think it needs to be not the usual suspects who are amplifying those voices, and go outside of the people who are normally bearing the burden, which is normally people of color, and for us all to take on that work to diversify and amplify the voices that we don’t always hear from.

ORLOWSKI

Well, let’s talk a little bit about something else. You recently worked on a project to rewrite free speech guidelines here on campus. Can you tell us a bit more about that project? What prompted it?

DEUTCHMAN

What prompted it was, I think in large part, what prompted the formation of the Center, which is just a couple of years ago, this issue of speech on campus and speakers being invited or disinvited was just exploding. And I think most noteworthy was what happened at Berkeley with Milo Yiannopoulos and how it resulted in violence. And the Center was formed as a sort of a response to that. And I think one of the things that many campuses, including UCI, did was to think to themselves, how do we rethink and review how we deal with speech on campus? And so Chancellor Gillman basically tasked the UCI campus counsel Kyhm Penfil with creating a group that would be a diverse group of people representing all different parts of the university, whether that’s student affairs or law enforcement, research, to come together and literally look at every free speech regulation that we have. So it’s an ongoing process, but I would say one of the major accomplishments, and this is where I get a little policy wonky, that I thought was great was we actually rewrote the guidance on protest and disruption. And the idea was to create guidance that student protesters and others could really look at and understand, okay, what are some of the things we’re going to take into consideration when we’re trying to decide in a student conduct situation, what’s protected protest and what’s disruption?

ORLOWSKI

You know, you bring up that really complicated question of different people’s free speech rights in those situations — the rights of the speaker and the rights of the protestors. How do those things interact? Where does one take precedence over another? Or how do you reconcile those two sets of rights?

DEUTCHMAN

So I’m going to give a cagey answer that people always think lawyers give, but it’s the real answer. And then I’ll extrapolate, which is, it really depends. I mean, I think part of the question becomes what kind of forum? Constitutional law talks about spaces as forums. Where are you? If you’re on Ring Road, that’s really different than being in a classroom that it’s been reserved for a specific speaker on a specific topic. So let’s take that example. You’re a student group, you, Aaron, have invited a speaker to speak or you’ve reserved a room in the student center. You’ve invited people to attend. So other students come to protest. They have signs they’re wearing t-shirts, maybe they’re handing out flyers outside. Maybe they’re passing out information, while the speaker is talking. Probably all of that is protected protests, and that’s what should happen. We want a variety of ideas.

But if one protester gets up and starts shouting so loudly and for so long that the audience can no longer hear the speaker, that protester has stepped out of the bounds of what is constitutionally protected. The First Amendment does not protect the right of protestors to preclude the speaker from being heard. And we have to remember, I think sometimes we forget that it’s not just about the speaker and the protesters. There’s also the people who are listening, and they also have free speech rights to hear that speaker. So I think that’s the tricky situation. And I think the purpose of the guidance is to answer more of the question of what do you do when that happens? What is the step-by-step process that takes place? What does the moderator say? How many warnings do you give. How do we try to create a resolution that ideally will not involve removing people from the room and will not involve campus law enforcement?

ORLOWSKI

And so the guidelines kind of go through that step-by-step process of balancing those two things or balancing those things?

DEUTCHMAN

The guidelines list a number of factors, factors that work — things that are usually considered protected protests and things that are usually not considered protected protest. It has language that a moderator can use to say to protesters, “We’re glad you’re here. We’ve heard your perspective. You’re welcome to stay and do question and answers, but we’re going to ask you not to disturb the event any longer.” And there’s some guidance about how many warnings might take place before you go to the next step. But again, it’s all very context specific. So for instance, Aaron, and if it’s your event and you’re the moderator, and I’m the protester, if you start talking to me and asking me questions about my perspective, that changes the guidance. Because now you’re engaging me and you’re actively asking for my feedback, as opposed to saying, “Thank you so much. I’d like you to wait like everybody else to ask your questions or make your point.”

ORLOWSKI

Of course, culture on these topics shifts over time. And, you know, college students today, it seems like they grew up in a different environment than college students in the past. They had many anti-bullying lessons and just a sort of a different environment. So how do you think that affects how they think about hate speech and protests and those issues today?

DEUTCHMAN

I have a lot of thoughts about that, especially as the parent, as a parent of two young kids. I’m hyper aware of how often I know I’m talking about words and the power of words, the impact of words, the importance of using kind words, of being an ally, of standing up when you hear things that are offensive to you. In grade school, when someone is bullying you, teachers have a lot more leeway than in college to say, “Hey, stop saying that.” So the bottom line, though, is hate speech is protected in the United States under the Constitution. Now, we can have a very interesting, and there is a very interesting, ongoing discussion about whether that should be the case, but for now that’s what we have to work with. And what I see is that we give students a lot of training on the anti-bullying piece, but we don’t pair it with the civics lesson of (how) free speech includes hateful speech. And then you drop them off on a large public university where offensive speakers are invited and everybody is surprised that they’re angry and confused. And I think that’s unfair to them. So for me, part of the work of the Center is really to ensure that there’s education. I mean, the education needs to start way earlier than college, but also when students get to college, not just of which speech is allowed, but if you’re going to run into really ugly speech that’s permitted, how are you going to respond? How are we giving students and other campus stakeholders tools to respond as members of the community and to be able to use their voice in a way to respond to a lot of polarizing and ugly things.

ORLOWSKI

Well, and there are so many ways to, as you just said, respond. And I would kind of guess that you would say that in this type of instance, more speech is better. So what do you view as some ways that students can generally respond to that hate speech without just shutting it down?

DEUTCHMAN

Yeah. I mean, I think, yes, I think more speech can be better. But I also think it’s naive to just assume that everybody has the same power with their speech. I think there are a lot of power dynamics right in the First Amendment and not everybody has the same megaphone or the same platform. And I think that feeds back into the issues we were talking about earlier about students of color, people of color, anti-Black racism, whose voices are heard? So in addition to more speech, I mean, I do think some of the other things is, okay, instead of standing and protesting Milo Yiannopoulos, what about doing a different event at the same time, somewhere else on campus, that’s really going to further different values and ideas? So we’re going to bring people, instead of giving the speaker with the hateful ideology the attention that he or she might crave, let’s go somewhere else and do a different event with different ideas and bring more people there.

ORLOWSKI

But I have to ask, with this age of physical distancing and fewer group gatherings, is this still an issue?

DEUTCHMAN

I think you’re right. I sometimes I have a moment where I forget the world that we’re in. I mean, I do. I think it just has different forms, unfortunately. I mean, I think zoom bombing is one of the ways that we’ve seen this happen, which is very disruptive. And I think you’re seeing campuses, including UCI, how do you respond to that? How do you do alternate programming to talk about the pain of this? OIT (Office of Information Technology) has been talking about how do you try to guard against it? So, yeah, I do think that you can do those kinds of things. They might not be people all together in one room, but there are people gathering in online platforms to be together to share ideas collectively, to brainstorm and also just to give each other support. I mean, I think this is a very emotionally and physically draining time, especially if you’re a protester, whether you’re protesting on the streets or you’re doing it online. There’s been a lot of interesting stuff written about self-care and how are people going to have resilience? And we actually have one of our fellows this year whose whole focus is on resilience for Student Affairs folks. And it’s fascinating.

ORLOWSKI

Yeah. Well, looking ahead to the coming months here, university campuses have always been places of great activism and a lot of social change has started and spread on college campuses. So how does that activism survive as we continue through this remote learning environment?

DEUTCHMAN

I have to say that there’s been so many moments where I think to myself, how different would all of this have looked, this time of civil unrest, if students had been on campus? It was sort of almost, it was weird to see. I mean, there were some in person protests on campus, but to see sort of those empty quads that probably would have been filled with people. I think that activism not only survives, but I think it has an opportunity to thrive. And the Center just did a webinar called The Shifting Landscape: What Will Speech and Activism Look Like in Higher Education. And it featured two of our fellows and a graduate student activist and you know what, it was incredibly helpful. They were able to showcase so many ways that campus activism has adapted to the new virtual world, whether it’s Strike University or through the Sunrise Movement, taking classes. A lot of discussion about how there’s just more opportunities for people to join, again, online, you don’t have to go to a specific place to do it. And we’re actually going to be publishing the fourth installment of our Speech Spotlight next week, and it’s all about supporting student activism and it showcases some of the ways that students have been able to adapt to this virtual model.

I think that there is incredible creativity and innovation, and I feel very positive about what the potential is, once we can sort of get over that it isn’t going to be the same as what it once was. I think there is so much possibility.

ORLOWSKI

Michelle, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.

DEUTCHMAN

Aaron, thanks so much.