UC Davis graduate and postgraduate students organized a Rally in Solidarity to support those affected by the travel ban in February.

Photo: Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis

Recent Protests Revive Free Speech Debate

by | May 30, 2017 | Culture, Spring/Summer 2017, What's Next

A day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, hundreds of thousands of women took to city streets across the globe to object to some of the new U.S. president’s most controversial promises. Since then, scientists, immigrant business owners and others have also protested.

Students have organized in large numbers for politically charged demonstrations on both sides of the national debate. At UC Davis, activists this year have fought against the Dakota Access Pipeline, policies like the immigration order, and for and against a local appearance by controversial former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopolous.

Third-year political science and public service major Joseph Nuñez called upon his experiences with activism to help organize an event to examine ways to overcome the divide on campus. “I was inspired by the responses that followed the 2016 presidential election results,” said Nuñez. “It is not popular to be the person or group in the middle attempting to bring people together. Nevertheless, we are compelled to try.”

A group gathers for peace in 1972. (Special Collections/UC Davis)

The effort to bridge division while respecting free speech on university campuses isn’t new. UC Berkeley saw the birth of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s that fought for the right for students to organize political activity on campus. UC Davis took its own approach to the movement, as students and staff resolved to transform conflict into a platform for dialogue. Students and faculty collaborated to develop inclusive and ethical practices for free speech on campus with the hope that they would prevent the violence they saw elsewhere.

Given the increasingly polarized nation, at the fall convocation Interim Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter called for a new emphasis on fostering campus inclusion and understanding. The yearlong initiative featured more opportunities for dialogue among the campus community, including workshops and forums. Additional events like teach-ins and February’s Rally in Solidarity aimed to educate.

University of California President Janet Napolitano also weighed in, encouraging more practices that promote academic debate. “The way to deal with extreme, unfounded speech is not with less speech — it is with more speech, informed by facts and persuasive argument,” said Napolitano in an op-ed published in the Boston Globe last fall. “We seek to make the world a better place for the next generation, and teaching the values and responsibilities of free speech is inextricably linked with this goal.”