The University of California will establish the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement in Washington, D.C., as part of a concerted educational, research and advocacy effort centered on the First Amendment’s critical importance to American democracy, UC President Janet Napolitano announced today (Oct. 26).

The issue of free speech has roiled colleges and universities nationwide, including UC campuses, with incidents of violence, intolerance and attempted speech suppression raising pressing questions about whether traditional views of the First Amendment will continue to hold sway on campuses. Many people — from students to faculty to the president of the United States — have suggested that greater restrictions on speech and speakers may be necessary. Others have expressed significant concern about what a departure from traditional First Amendment principles would mean for the nation’s universities and civic discourse more broadly. 

“Few issues today are more timely, or more challenging, than free speech on our nation’s college campuses,” Napolitano said. “Our country needs an outlet to grapple with changing views on the First Amendment and what these mean for America and how our democracy functions.

“We must move beyond sound bites and tweets to examine such issues in a thoughtful, deliberative way, informed by top minds across the political spectrum, the best research and latest data. The University of California, where the Free Speech Movement was born, is uniquely suited to lead this effort. That’s why we are creating this national center.”

The National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, which Napolitano will chair, will be housed at UCDC, the university’s Washington, D.C. location. Key to the center’s efforts will be the creation of a fellowship program that will draw from leading public policy thinkers, legal scholars, social scientists, journalists and others. The initial group of fellows will be chosen by an advisory board after the application process opens on Nov. 9. Funding for the center will come from the UC presidential endowment, as well as private philanthropic efforts.

“Campuses across the country are confronting enormously difficult issues concerning freedom of speech and how to facilitate constructive civil engagement for students and faculty,” said the dean of UC Berkeley School of Law, Erwin Chemerinsky, one of the nation’s foremost legal scholars on the First Amendment and author of the recently published book “Free Speech on Campus,” with Howard Gillman, chancellor of UC Irvine.

Chemerinsky and Gillman will serve as co-chairs of the center’s advisory board. Also on the board are former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer; John King, President and CEO of The Education Trust and former U.S. Secretary of Education; Anne Kornblut, director of strategic communications at Facebook; Avi Oved, student at UCLA School of Law; New York Times columnist Bret Stephens; Geoffrey R. Stone, professor at the University of Chicago Law School; and Washington Post columnist George Will, among others.

“I am thrilled that President Napolitano is creating the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement,” said Chemerinsky. “We need to research, educate, listen to and understand each other. It is hard to imagine social progress anywhere that wasn’t dependent on freedom of speech.”

Said Gillman, “The creation of this center comes at a critical time, not only for higher education, but for our country as a whole. Through our research and years of teaching in this area, Erwin and I have seen the growing imperative to improve understanding of free speech issues. That’s why this center is such an exciting development.”

The selection of the first class of the center’s fellows will be announced in January. The fellows will be provided with a stipend to spend up to a year focusing on free speech and civic engagement issues, conducting research, offering seminars, and each spending a week in residence at one of the 10 UC campuses. 

The fellows will explore issues ranging from what the latest data demonstrate about college students’ views on free speech to how those views may differ among different student groups and in what ways those views may have changed from previous generations. They will also look at the role political polarization plays in driving changing perspectives on the First Amendment and how social media and the fragmentation of traditional media affects students and others’ views of free speech.

The work of the center’s fellows will form the basis for a national conference in 2018 that will bring together university presidents, elected officials, student leaders and others to explore these issues and develop new approaches for engaging and educating students about the critical role of the First Amendment in American democracy.

“The University of California must not only educate students and conduct groundbreaking research,” Napolitano said. “It must also serve as a training ground for an educated, engaged citizenry — for leaders who will uphold our intrinsic democratic ideals while also helping us navigate a changing social and political landscape. Through the Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, UC will move the conversation to thoughtful dialogue and meaningful action.”

To learn more about plans for the center please click here.