Guillermo: National Free Speech Center Too Academic for Words - Higher Education
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Guillermo: National Free Speech Center Too Academic for Words

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by Emil Guillermo


The academic world is great at creating useless research that amounts to one gigantic boondoggle. Witness the millions of wasted public dollars that fund scientists to do useless research on animals that have minimal, if not zero relevance to humans.

UC President Janet Napolitano

That’s unfortunately the state of most research based on animal experiments. Ninety percent of animal studies failed to lead to therapies for humans, according to a study reported in the British Medical Journal.

But that’s also standard operating procedure in the academy. Careers are built on it.

So it doesn’t surprise me when faced with a real-life issue on campus like protecting free speech, the largest public research university system has come up with the only  thing it knows how to do.

Let’s study it!

UC President Janet Napolitano, now experienced in higher ed as well as government bureaucracies at the state and federal levels, has announced the launch of the National Center for Free Speech  and Civic Engagement.

In an op-ed in USA TODAY, Napolitano writes: “Cognizant of both the enduring constitutional principles of free speech and the nature of our changing times, the center and its roster of fellows will focus on addressing whether and how students’ relationship to the First Amendment has fundamentally shifted from the 1960s—and how to restore trust in the value and importance of free speech among students and society at large.”

That’s one heck of a sentence for an op-ed.  Sounds more like the intro to some foundation pitch.

I respect President Napolitano’s free speech right to express herself and use the word “cognizant,” but really, do we need a national center for free speech?

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Isn’t the Constitution enough? Here’s a cost-cutting suggestion: Let’s all read the thing aloud every week!

The fact that we have raucous demonstrations shows that free speech is alive.

Ever since people not previously invited to the party started speaking out on talk radio and now the internet, traditional institutions have experienced a disruption in decorum, and a general lack of respect.

More speech is a good thing. That’s the point of the First Amendment. But it does bring us to our present-day problem. How do we present outrageous views on campus safely without compromising democracy?

This unfortunately is a matter of security and requires the study of effective policing methods and presentation policies. We don’t need any research on the rise of Milo Yiannopoulos.

But a national center for free speech sounds merely like a nice forum to bring together establishment folks to talk about the problem.

The advisory board includes Dean of UC Berkeley School of Law Erwin Chemerinsky, and chancellor of UC Irvine Howard Gillman, who will serve as co-chairs. 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.

The “among others” will be the key to making this idea worthwhile.  Will advisors and participants represent diverse racial and political perspectives?  Will they come from academic and non-academic backgrounds? Will skinheads and white supremacists be invited?

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If we need police and security for the advisory board meetings, who knows, maybe the idea will be a smashing success.

It still sounds like an excuse to put together a project to justify a few academic jobs. But let me be open-minded about this “research.”  Whatever it turns out to be, it can’t possibly be any more of a boondoggle than the millions in wasteful animal research being done on campuses today.

Emil Guillermo is a veteran journalist and commentator. He writes for the civil rights organization AALDEF at http://www.aaldef.org/blog

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