'Critical Conversation' speaker: Free-speech conflicts down, but tensions remain

'Critical Conversation' speaker: Free-speech conflicts down, but tensions remain

URBANA — A noted constitutional scholar who will appear at the University of Illinois today says free-speech conflicts on college campuses appear to have eased a bit this year, but underlying tensions continue.

Geoffrey Stone, former provost and law dean at the University of Chicago and now an emeritus law professor there, will take part in a "Critical Conversation" on free speech with another staunch First Amendment advocate, Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California Berkeley School of Law. In 2017, the Berkeley campus was the site of several high-profile protests of conservative speakers.

"I would like to think last year was kind of the peak," Stone said in a phone interview Monday. "Maybe they're just not getting as much coverage. It's still a real issue."

He cited the case last week of a conservative South Texas Law School professor whose speech was interrupted by student protesters at the City University of New York.

Stone said the rancor of the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath may have been a factor last year, but the free-speech issue has been on the rise for the past five years. He attributed it to a combination of factors, including social media.

"Part of it is a generational thing," he said, with students unaccustomed to challenges their parents may have faced.

Social media, meanwhile, fosters "much more pervasive hateful speech than used to be the case," he said.

"When I grew up, you didn't really encounter this kind of speech very often at all. Mainstream media would never print or broadcast it in any way," he said.

And college campuses are more diverse, with students from underrepresented minorities feeling comfortable speaking out against "hate speech."

"It's given them more of a critical mass to express things they would not have expressed in the past because they thought they would be dismissed out of hand," he said.

There's also been a tendency over the last couple of years by conservative students to invite "provocateurs" to campus just for the sake of causing a ruckus, he said.

"There is arguably a reason to want to hear what people like Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter or Richard Spencer have to say. But the people inviting them are less interested in hearing what they have to say than they are making an issue and creating a confrontation," Stone said. "In that sense, they've been less sensitive to the ugliness of what they're doing than they might have been in the past."

'Power of censorship'

Stone said both sides should be able to make the case for or against a speaker, but asking a university to ban someone is an "illegitimate and unwise position, because it's a two-edged sword."

Left-leaning students or faculty members may feel safe demanding that conservative speakers be silenced because they're in the majority on campuses, he said.

"They think it won't come back and bite them. They may not know enough about history to know that universities used to ban communists and used to ban people who criticized the war," Stone said. "Giving the power to censor is not something you get to control forever."

And in a larger world that is "not like the culture at most universities," he said, "if you legitimize the power of censorship, that's going to disadvantage, not advantage, you."

Stone chaired a committee in 2014 asked to draft a statement on freedom of expression for the University of Chicago, which has since been adopted by dozens of other schools.

"Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe," it read.

Stone later famously declined an offer by white supremacist Richard Spencer to speak at the University of Chicago, and made public his email exchange with Spencer.

"If Richard Spencer says to me, 'You should invite me,' I can say, 'I don't have any interest in hearing what you have to say,'" Stone said Monday. But he said he would defend Spencer's right to speak if someone else invited him to campus.

Like Stone, Chemerinsky opposes the "heckler's veto" of controversial speakers and says campuses must be places where all ideas are expressed. He has argued that the current generation of college students is the first to be taught from a young age that bullying is wrong, and many are trying to protect other students from hate speech in order to create an inclusive community.

But the law is clear that hate speech is protected by the Constitution, he said in a New York Times interview last fall. Every campus hate-speech code that's been challenged in court has been ruled unconstitutional.

Clinton, Obama connections

Chemerinsky said campuses can denounce hate speech, offer support for students targeted, take steps to prevent violence, shut down speech that is truly a threat, and place restrictions on the time, place and manner of speech. And students can hold counterdemonstrations. But they can't stop someone from speaking.

Chemerinsky, an expert on constitutional law, was founding dean of the University of California-Irvine School of Law before taking the helm at the Berkeley Law School in 2017. He has authored 10 books, including "Free Speech on Campus" (2017) with Howard Gillman. He also writes a weekly column for the Sacramento Bee and frequent op-eds in newspapers across the country.

He's also been a frequent critic of President Donald Trump's attacks on the press and alleged violation of constitutional provisions barring him from receiving payments from foreign governments.

Stone joined the University of Chicago law faculty in 1973 after serving as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. He has authored numerous books on constitutional law, including several on free speech and "Top Secret: When Our Government Keeps Us in the Dark," in 2007.

Stone was later appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, which evaluated the government's foreign intelligence surveillance programs in the wake of Edward Snowden's leaks. He was also one of the lawyers who represented President Bill Clinton in the Supreme Court in Clinton v. Jones.

Today's event will be moderated by UI College of Law Dean Vikram Amar, who is also a constitutional scholar and led a task force that drew up a statement on free speech for the UI. He said both speakers are longtime friends.

If you go

What: 'Free Speech on Campus,' the second in University of Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones' 'Critical Conversation' series, open to the public.

Who: First Amendment scholars Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the Cal-Berkeley School of Law, and Geoffrey Stone, emeritus law professor and former law dean and provost at the University of Chicago.

When: Noon to 1 p.m. today.

Where: Colwell Playhouse, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U.