Tag Archives: free speech

What’s the Matter with Kids Today?

The classic musical “Bye Bye Birdie” tells the story of rock ’n’ roll star Conrad Birdie (think Elvis Presley) and the mayhem that results when he arrives in a small Ohio town.  Like many depictions of that era, the 56-year-old production features a song, “Kids,” that describes the many flaws of young adults in the 1950s.  The refrain is “What’s the matter with kids today?” and the song describes “kids” as “disobedient,” “disrespectful,” “crazy,” and “lazy.”  In a moment of comedic nostalgia, it asks “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?”

Today’s media seems to be singing a new version of “Kids.”  A recent column by Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post, titled “Liberal intolerance is on the rise on America’s college campuses,” cites a recent research survey in which 43 percent of entering freshman said “colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers.”  Rampell adds that a number of student groups (now about 76) have presented “demands” to their university administration, and several university presidents have stepped down in response to student protests.  Collectively, Rampell views these developments as a shift on campuses in which liberal voices are “muzzling” other voices on campus.  Countless similar articles in the media have focused on related issues like trigger warnings, micro-aggressions and the “coddling” of today’s students.

Like the adults in “Bye Bye Birdie,” the media critics and their analyses are superficial and their characterizations fundamentally inaccurate.  I interact with our students every day.  I see our students at their best and their worst.  I see snapshots of their achievements and hear the extended narratives of their lives. There is so much more than the caricatures presented in the media.

Scene from "Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights," SDSU production December 2015

Photo by Ken Jacques

Our students are ambitious, talented and hard-working. Every day, I meet a student who is pursuing a double major and leading one or more co-curricular groups.  They are students like the young man in our M.A. program in history who has been offered full scholarships to Ph.D. programs at the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan.  They are artists and student-athletes who bring their unique talents and extraordinary commitment to our community.  They are the student from our Imperial Valley Campus who recently took a two-hour Greyhound bus ride to the San Diego campus for a one-hour co-curricular activity because “he wanted to learn more.”

Our students are embracing the opportunities afforded by an SDSU education. Over 550 students will be participating in our Student Research Symposium next month, and over 1,000 students are participating in the Aztec Mentor Program. Our ZIP Launchpad and Lavin Entrepreneurship Center are preparing future entrepreneurs, and our students are leading efforts in sustainability and service learning.

Aztecs are adventurers.  Students are coming to San Diego State from across the globe, seeking to advance their educations and their lives.  As just one example, I recently met an enthusiastic young woman from a small town in Minnesota who was brave enough to leave the world she knew to join us here in San Diego.  Our California students are embracing this ethos of adventure, venturing out to prepare for their roles as global citizens.  Over 2,400 students had an international experience last year, and we rank 15th in the nation for study abroad.

To speak directly to students’ desire to ban extreme speakers, it may reflect a noble longing (albeit one pursued through the wrong means).  Our students have grown up in one of the most diverse societies in history.  They have seen it fractured by faction, and they have heard many political leaders say hateful things.  For many students, the desire to ban extreme speakers comes from a well-meaning desire to protect themselves and to bring harmony to our community.  This laudable desire for community also manifests itself in other ways, such as in enthusiastic participation in our One SDSU Community initiative – which brings students from many groups together for community service and dialogues on our diverse communities.

Our students are not constitutional lawyers when they enter SDSU (although they may be someday), and they are not always intimately familiar with our longstanding American tradition of protecting speech, regardless of its content. As an advocate for freedom of expression, I have had extended discussions with many students who come to more nuanced understandings of the implications of banning speakers when they learn more about the historical and constitutional contexts.

This brings me to my essential point.  It is our collective responsibility and privilege to support today’s students and to help them develop into the future leaders of our society.  Our extraordinary faculty and staff support this important work every day, but everyone in our community can participate.  We can join our community to support students who are participating in artistic, cultural and athletics events.  We can provide funds to support scholarships and programming to help students pursue an education for leadership in the 21st century.  We can all make an important difference for our students and for our society’s future.

The question “What’s the matter with kids today?” is, to be blunt, the wrong question.

The right question is “How can we work as One SDSU Community to support our students?”

Every day, members of our community give profound and enthusiastic answers to this question, and for that I am extremely grateful.

SDSU Mechatronics Club members take their first-place winning robo-sub to the pool in the 2015 international competition.


Filed under Uncategorized

Lessons Learned at the Family Table

Earlier this month, my family gathered to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday – a wonderful opportunity to celebrate a life well-lived.  To engage in understatement, my mother was not a typical mother.  Unlike some of her contemporaries, she was not vain nor did she have a focus on a particular domestic art.  Her focus was on justice.  Having grown up as a poor, Jewish woman in the southern United States of the 1940s and 1950s, she had, and has, a singular daily focus on rooting out bigotry and prejudice.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Golda Meir and Cesar Chavez were as present in my childhood as if they were sitting in our living room.  When the UFW boycotted, there were no grapes in our house.  My mother argued vehemently for a women’s right to choose long before widespread adoption of this view, and racial and ethnic disparities in health care, wealth, education, and incarceration rates were a constant focus of her concern. Unlike many, her approach was not intellectual or philosophical.  It was about action.

Looking back from the perspective of today’s challenges and turbulent environment, some might see the efforts of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s as not going far enough – as somehow honoring civility of dialogue above moral imperatives. This was most assuredly not the case.  In the context of the times, my mother’s views and those of many others were extraordinarily disruptive.  They were tornados that caused people, values and social conventions to crash into each other, leaving behind a changed landscape.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but after a “sharing of perspectives,” we sometimes left social gatherings quickly – and we were not always invited back.

So why is all this on a university president’s blog?

At California’s public universities, we have lived in a culture of protest for over 50 years, since the beginnings of the Free Speech Movement at UC-Berkeley. There are, literally, protests every day somewhere on California’s campuses. Moreover, some of the classic techniques of protesting – the reflexive reliance on Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” – don’t always seem relevant given the complexity of many of our current fiscal and organizational challenges.  For some members of our community, the omnipresence of complaints has numbed them to the substance of the concerns.  Others have reacted by emphasizing that we must put a focus on civility in our public discourse.  (See my prior blog post on the importance of university communities protecting freedom of expression, even at the expense of civility.)

Yet, disruptive action and protest remain critical to progress.  Many members of our community are focused on the complex analysis, planning and implementation that must occur for us to address social, economic, political and environmental challenges.  Nonetheless, there must often be a moment – a moment of protest – that helps us recognize our societal challenges and begin to address them.  This spring, as we move through the semester and the voices of protest are raised, let’s all listen carefully to discern the substance of our challenges and to find ways to become a better community.

Thanks, Mom, for teaching me this lesson, and Happy Birthday!


Filed under Uncategorized

Free Speech at SDSU

Over the last six months, the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment has emerged as an extraordinarily contentious issue on many university campuses.  Last spring, several speakers at commencements across the nation (e.g., former Secretary of State and Stanford Provost Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers University, former UC Berkeley Chancellor Bob Birgeneau at Haverford College) decided not to speak following protests.  This fall, significant controversies arose when a hiring decision at one university may have been influenced by a prospective professor’s tweets and when several university leaders articulated views on the relationship between free speech and civil discourse.  Given these circumstances, it is a fitting moment to review our traditions of freedom of expression at San Diego State and in the American academy, more generally.  They provide important context for understanding these controversies and appropriate responses to them.

Our policy on free expression articulates two essential principles. First, it emphasizes (section 1.1) that freedom of expression is not only protected by the First Amendment, it is essential to our educational and research missions.  It is critical to present a range of perspectives so students can understand issues and develop frameworks for thinking about these issues.  Likewise, researchers and creative artists must be able to consider a range of possible approaches in highlighting and addressing challenges and problems.  In short, freedom of expression has privileged status on a university campus.  It is “integral to the mission of the university” and an “inviolate freedom.”  This view is consistent with judicial interpretations of the U.S. Constitution (e.g., Brandenburg v. Ohio) that provide extensive protections for free expression.

Second, our policy indicates (sections 2.0 and 3.0) that even though freedom of expression is not an absolute right (e.g., “Reasonable regulations may be designed to avoid disruption of the mission of the university.”), any regulation should “maximize opportunities, in terms of time, place and manner, for free expression.”  Our policy emphasizes that regulation should be “content neutral” and “all legal speech, even offensive speech, is permitted.”  This second principle is consistent with a long judicial tradition in which speech and expression may be restricted (e.g., restrictions on speech that incites imminent violence), but such restrictions should be limited and narrow.

These principles provide an important framework for understanding regulation of free expression on campus.  For example, consider the case of proposed speakers and those who wish to protest those speakers.  In our tradition, speakers have a right to speak, even if they present controversial materials, and protesters have a right to protest, even if the motivation for their protest is controversial.

Rainbow Flag-Raising 2014

Jenna Mackey/The Daily Aztec

The principles also clarify how the university should respond to protesters who ask that the university ban invited speakers – which happens in highly publicized cases like spring commencement and in a myriad of lesser-known instances. While many protesters claim that a speaker’s appearance implies that the university endorses the speaker’s views, this is not the case.  We endorse the speaker’s right to express his or her views and the audience’s right to hear these views.  Under the “endorsement” framework, we could never invite speakers the university does not specifically endorse, and this approach would severely restrict potential speakers and our academic discourse.  The claim that we endorse the views of all who speak at the university and its corollary that we should rescind invitations to those whose views the university does not endorse are an immediate threat to our core missions of education, research and service.

There are, of course, many complications.  For example, if a controversial speaker comes to campus, can a group of protesters “shout down” the speaker? While one might claim that one is simply expressing a viewpoint, shouting down a speaker restricts the speaker’s right to free expression and is addressed in the SDSU student code of conduct.  Protesters can ask questions, hold up signs, present alternative speakers and express their own views.  They might even shout out a phrase or two during a speaker’s presentation, but completely preventing an invited speaker from speaking at our university is not within our traditions or policies.

A related question concerns whether a group who invites a controversial speaker can be forced to invite another speaker who presents a contrasting view.  This is often requested and presented as a compromise position designed to foster open discussion.  Forcing someone to invite someone to campus that they do not wish to invite is a restriction of their free expression and inconsistent with our traditions – even if the invitation might accomplish other beneficial objectives.

Important considerations also arise when one considers the relationship between freedom of expression and civil discourse or politeness.  This topic is frequently raised by university leaders concerned with campus climate.  While there is no question that civility or politeness is very important, it is equally important to recognize that, in our American tradition, the right to freedom of expression is unrelated to civility or politeness.  Our university’s protections of expression are “content neutral” and “even offensive speech is permitted.”  There are, as discussed above, regulations and constraints on expression, but a requirement for politeness is not one of them.

Even if one grants that impolite speech cannot be a basis for restricting expression, questions regarding when one person’s expression creates an immediate or pervasive threat to another person (e.g., when speech incites imminent violence) are likely to be continuing sources of disagreement on our campuses. In adjudicating such circumstances, we should follow the principle that, if any restriction of expression is necessary, restrictions should be as limited and narrow in scope as possible.

It is likely that some of what I have said will make some happy and anger others. Similarly, it may clarify some issues but not others.  In all of these cases, it will continue our powerful tradition of free expression – one that we must protect and nurture so our academic community can continue its important work.


Note: Documents in Portable Document Format (PDF) require Adobe Acrobat Reader 5.0 or higher to view. You can download Adobe Acrobat Reader.

1 Comment

Filed under Community, News, Student Affairs, Uncategorized