University of California Could Bar Political Speech on Some Web Pages

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Israel’s bombing of Gaza is “genocidal,” according to the home page of the critical race and ethnic studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Such a statement would be considered political and would be prohibited, according to a new proposal by the regents of the University of California.

Under the proposal, academic departments would be barred from posting political statements on their home pages. And any political statement issued by a department — in any venue — would need to meet stricter guidelines.

The regents are set to vote as early as Wednesday on the plan, which would apply to the U.C. system’s 10 schools, including Santa Santa Cruz, U.C.L.A. and Berkeley.

Higher education abounds in opinions on current events, from Black Lives Matter to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, and Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, universities have been under pressure to draw tighter boundaries around speech, sometimes in ways that have alarmed supporters of academic freedom.

The state’s progressive politics have generally insulated the University of California from some of the conservative attacks on colleges. But the regents’ proposal, some faculty and students worry, could represent a turnabout, at a moment when the very language used to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply contested.

Many Jewish students, faculty and alumni have accused some pro-Palestinian protesters and faculty of veering into antisemitic speech. At Berkeley last month, an event featuring an Israeli speaker was canceled after a crowd of protesters broke down doors, which the chancellor, Carol Christ, described as “an attack on the fundamental values of the university.”

A political science professor at Berkeley, Ron Hassner, has organized a sit-in at his office, to protest what he says is inaction by the administration on campus antisemitism. And more than 400 professors signed a letter decrying how the university system’s ethnic studies departments posted material on their home pages that “vilifies Israel, rejects the characterization of the Hamas massacre as terrorism, and calls on the U.C. administration to ‘endorse the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.’”

On Tuesday, Rep. Virginia Foxx, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, sent a letter to university officials requesting documents and information about Berkeley’s response to antisemitism on campus.

To Jay Sures, the regent who developed the proposal, prohibiting such statements on a department’s home page does not limit academic freedom. Professors and students have many other forums to express themselves, he said, but their opinions on department home pages could be misinterpreted as representing the University of California.

“The faculty can have their Twitter accounts,” Mr. Sures said at a January regents meeting. “They can do social media. They can publish peer studies. There are so many other ways.”

Some universities have already tightened their rules.

There has also been an intense debate about whether universities should adopt the University of Chicago’s famous policy of “institutional neutrality,” which means that the university takes no stance on issues that are not central to the university’s functions.

The debate at the University of California isn’t quite that. The president, board chair and others speaking as the official voice of the university would not be affected by the regents’ proposal.

In fact, a university statement sparked the tussle between Mr. Sures and the ethnic studies faculty.

On Oct. 9, Michael V. Drake, the president of University of California, and Richard Leib, the board chair, issued a statement condemning the Hamas attack as “terrorism” and “sickening and incomprehensible.”

A week later, the university’s ethnic studies council, which represents hundreds of the discipline’s faculty members across the system, objected, writing in a letter that the official statement lacked “a full understanding of this historical moment” and contributed to anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian sentiments.

“We call on the U.C. administrative leadership to retract its charges of terrorism, to uplift the Palestinian freedom struggle, and to stand against Israel’s war crimes against and ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Palestinian people,” the council said.

Mr. Sures called the letter “appalling and repugnant.”

He responded that he would do everything in his power “to protect our Jewish students, and for that matter, everyone in our extended community from your inflammatory and out of touch rhetoric.”

The U.C. system had already considered the issue of political statements. In 2022, an academic freedom committee argued against the prohibition of department political statements.

Departments, the report said, should instead create guidelines about when to issue statements, be transparent about whose views are represented, and also consider whether they could chill the speech of those who disagree.

For now, political statements are allowed so long as they don’t veer into electoral politics.

But the regents’ proposal would limit department home pages to day-to-day operations, which include course descriptions, upcoming events and the release of new publications.

Opinions would be allowed on other university websites. But any political declaration would need a disclaimer, stating that the views are not necessarily that of the university’s.

The regents’ proposal adopts other recommendations of the 2022 academic freedom report. It would mandate that department members vote before issuing a political statement, with ballots collected anonymously to protect dissenting opinions. Departments would need to create and post guidelines about the process.

The proposal did not assuage the concerns of many faculty members, who say it was politically motivated.

The regents proposal “delegitimizes the work that we do in ethnic studies,” said Felicity Amaya Schaeffer, the department chair at Santa Cruz.

The ethnic studies department’s statements, she said, are “based on the academic expertise of almost all of us at the department and especially our faculty who work on Palestine.”

James Steintrager, the chair of the university’s academic senate, worried that the proposal is an invitation for outsiders to police academia.

“It’s not only about straightforwardly political statements about some world events,” he said in an interview, “but also about things like climate change, vaccine science, things like that.”

But Ty Alper, a Berkeley law professor who led the academic freedom committee in 2022, was pleased that the proposal adopted its recommendations. Mr. Alper said he was less focused on rules about department home pages.

“I’m more concerned,” he said, “with ensuring that faculty have the individual and collective right to issue statements on matters of interest.”


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