How free should free speech be on university campuses?

College students are returning to their campuses this month to begin the new academic year. And in the months ahead there will likely be heated debates, big and small, over the limits of free speech at colleges and universities.

Should speakers who many students believe harbor racist, misogynist, or homophobic views be allowed to address students? Should one campus group be able to challenge the activities of another student organization if they believe their views are hurtful? And do conservative students feel comfortable expressing their views at institutions often seen as liberal bastions?

The University of California, Irvine has been at the epicenter of many of these kinds of debates. Conflicts have erupted between Jewish and Palestinian student groups. And UC Irvine students have debated whether right-wing provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulous should be allowed to speak on campus.

KCRW sat down with UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman to discuss free speech in higher education. Gillman has thought long and hard about the issue as a constitutional scholar and the co-author of the book “Free Speech on Campus,” which he wrote with Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley Law School.

Although he recognizes how hurtful some forms of speech can be to students, Gillman is a believer that censorship is rarely the right response.

KCRW: How do you assess this moment in America when it comes to free speech, especially on college and university campuses?

Howard Gillman: Right now, we’re in a political culture where we don’t see each other any longer as fellow citizens working through issues together, working through our disagreements. We really are looking to each other as the enemy camp. And it makes it tough when you are trying to create a culture of free expression and dialogue because the larger political culture is not giving this young generation any good models for how people work through problems.

U.C. Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman in his office. The sixth person to lead UCI, he has been a defender of a strict adherence to the First Amendment. Gillman helped to found the UC system’s new National Center for Free Speech and Civil Engagement. Photo: Saul Gonzalez

KCRW: Let’s quote something from UC Irvine’s website. You have a free speech section there where you enunciate your values, and it says, “We cannot and will not censor or punish people merely because they express ideas we do not like. We will not deny access to campus venues because of their views.” Does that mean you can say whatever you want at UC Irvine?

HG: Protected speech is merely about the expression of viewpoints. And so the thing that is prohibited, and should be prohibited, especially on a college campus, is to censor or punish someone merely for the expression of a viewpoint that you find disagreeable, dangerous, or otherwise, from your point of view, worthy of silencing. So it is the expression of viewpoints that needs to be maximally protected I think at any college or university, but certainly by requirement of the First Amendment at public colleges and universities

KCRW: No matter how reprehensible and hurtful those views expressed might be to many students on a a particular campus, including your own.

HG: That is exactly right. The mere expression of a viewpoint is not, both within First Amendment jurisprudence, but also just within the boundaries of free societies, cannot be the basis for silencing or punishing someone.

You know we went through a period in the late ’80s and the early ’90s when about 350 colleges and universities passed hate speech codes. What was motivating them was a very legitimate set of concerns, especially about racist speech on certain campuses. Every single one of those codes that went before a federal court was struck down because as unconstitutional. And it turns out that when you sit down and really try to define something like hate speech, the definition gets very difficult to pin down in a way that does not also put on risk controversial speech that some people view as problematic but you otherwise would want to protect.

The bottom line is that hate speech imposes a cost on people. And in the end, the view of free speech advocates is that the creation of a censorship regime is more dangerous in the long run to the well-being of people, especially vulnerable people in society, than the allowing of the free expression of ideas.