Many have criticized a message sent around last week by University of California at Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, which spoke about free speech and civility. (See, for instance, the items by Ken White (Popehat) and Greg Lukianoff (FIRE).) I think much of the criticism has merit, and, like many institutional exhortations, the message was mushy enough that it could be used in many different ways, some bad.

But one thing at the heart of the e-mail (which I quote at the end of the post) strikes me as quite right: civility is extremely important to the work of the university — as it is to the work of other institutions — and it is quite right that universities stress this to incoming students. Universities shouldn’t have speech codes restricting uncivil speech; but lots of things that shouldn’t be forbidden should nonetheless be spoken out against, especially by institutions whose job is to teach. The skills and habits of civil, productive discourse are worth teaching, just as are other skills and habits related to the acquisition and discussion of knowledge.

If Dirks’s message is indeed, as some understandably suspect, a prelude to an attempt to punish supposedly “uncivil” speech, that would be bad. (I set aside here the proper power of professors to ensure that class discussion is civil by cutting off students who insult other students.) But if it is an attempt to persuade people to act civilly, then this goal strikes me as something that a university chancellor should indeed be trying to promote.

And that “civility” is hard to precisely define, and that people may disagree about what exactly it means in particular contexts, is hardly a reason to stop urging it. Unsound argument, disingenuosness, and lack of scholarly rigor are hard to define, too, but that doesn’t mean that universities shouldn’t try to teach students the opposite. It would be a great loss if rejecting civility codes turned into rejecting civility norms and the speech (by chancellors, deans, professors, and others) used to buttress those norms.

Here is how I would have written Dirks’s message, using many of his words and trying to keep close to the length of the original. I think this might be pretty close to what Dirks meant to say (in my experience, most scholars of all ideological stripes do care a lot about civility), but in any case, I think it’s worth saying.

This Fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, which made the right to free expression of ideas a signature issue for our campus, and indeed for universities around the world. Free speech is the cornerstone of our nation and society — which is precisely why the founders of the country wrote the First Amendment to the Constitution. For a half century now, our University has been a symbol and embodiment of that ideal. We continue to honor it today.

But while protecting free speech is necessary to maintaining an open, democratic society — and to the meaningful exchange of ideas that is the university’s mission — it is not sufficient. We also need a willingness to listen. We need a willingness to engage in intellectually honest debate rather than in demagoguery. We need commitment to the requirements and disciplines of academic knowledge, so that what we say will be more likely to be factually accurate and logically sound.

And we particularly need civility. Learning, research, and debate are social endeavors, which work best when people engage in them graciously and politely, and which work poorly when people are needlessly rude and disrespectful to each other. When people know that expressing certain views will lead to name-calling and ad hominem arguments, they will be less likely to express those views. When people are treated disrespectfully by some on the other side of a debate, they will be less open to being convinced, and less likely to work hard to convince others. And this is true not just of political speech on Sproul Plaza, but also in our everyday interactions with each other — in the classroom, in the office, and in the lab.

This is especially so when issues are inherently divisive, controversial, and capable of arousing strong feelings. We will protect people’s rights to freely express themselves on these issues (even when they do so uncivilly), and we strongly encourage people to engage those issues. Indeed, the work of the University and a commitment to intellectual honesty demand that people engage those issues, despite their controversial nature. But nearly every idea that people want to express can be expressed politely — and expressing it politely is almost always more persuasive, as well as being more conducive to learning, debate, and the discovery of knowledge.

Finally, the university is a place to learn, and one of the habits and skills we teach is constructive, thoughtful discussion that persuades rather than alienating. You will need these habits and skills as scholars, as professionals, and as participants in civic life. Committing ourselves to civility as well as to free inquiry is an important step for all of us in our continuing education.

Sincerely,

Eugene Volokh

Here, for comparison, is Chancellor Dirks’ e-mail:

From: Nicholas Dirks Chancellor …
Date: Fri, Sep 5, 2014 at 3:12 PM
Subject: Civility and Free Speech
To: “Faculty; Staff; Students” …

Dear Campus Community,

This Fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, which made the right to free expression of ideas a signature issue for our campus, and indeed for universities around the world. Free speech is the cornerstone of our nation and society — which is precisely why the founders of the country made it the First Amendment to the Constitution. For a half century now, our University has been a symbol and embodiment of that ideal

As we honor this turning point in our history, it is important that we recognize the broader social context required in order for free speech to thrive. For free speech to have meaning it must not just be tolerated, it must also be heard, listened to, engaged and debated. Yet this is easier said than done, for the boundaries between protected and unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between the campus and the classroom, between debate and demagoguery, between freedom and responsibility, have never been fully settled. As a consequence, when issues are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings, the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation. This fall, like every fall, there will be no shortage of issues to animate and engage us all. Our capacity to maintain that delicate balance between communal interests and free expression, between openness of thought and the requirements and disciplines of academic knowledge, will be tested anew.

Specifically, we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility. Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas. In this sense, free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin — the coin of open, democratic society.

Insofar as we wish to honor the ideal of Free Speech, therefore, we should do so by exercising it graciously. This is true not just of political speech on Sproul Plaza, but also in our everyday interactions with each other — in the classroom, in the office, and in the lab.

Sincerely,

Nicholas Dirks
Chancellor