UC campuses have long been sites of political activism and protest. From the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, to anti-apartheid protests across the campuses, to the recent fight for a cost of living adjustment. In 2017, protests over the planned appearance of far right-wing pundit Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley led to the creation of the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement at the University of California. 

The center hosts events and programs to encourage students in pursuit of advancing the freedom of speech on college campuses, including its Fellowship Program, the VOICE Initiative, and its Speech Spotlight and Speech Spotlight Live series. These programs work to answer the questions from 2017 that remain relevant today, as campuses work to capitalize on the student engagement with the 2020 election and allow political activism in schools while keeping students safe.

The center started Speech Spotlight Live on Jan. 27, inviting guests to discuss issues of speech and civic engagement in higher education — such as deplatforming and democracy in the digital age — with UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement Executive Director Michelle Deutchman. 

The Fellowship Program funds selected students whose research pertains to free speech.

The Valuing Open and Inclusive Conversation Engagement (VOICE) Initiative funds UC students, staff, or faculty conducting research or creating programs that promote the center’s mission.

The Speech Spotlight Series is a compilation of written responses from people in the higher education community around topics like bias response teams, student voting engagement, and expression during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been adapted into a virtual live speaking series, Speech Spotlight Live.

“I’m hoping that the center’s programs and activities are going to give folks an opportunity to sort of deepen and broaden their understanding and their thinking about expression issues or about civic engagement issues,” said Deutchman. “My vision of the center is [that] the center doesn’t have the answers. There are no hard and fast answers. It’s all about exploring and thinking through how we deal with these issues as they come up.”

President Drake’s Playlist:
– “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
– “Respect” by Aretha Franklin
– “Only a Pawn in Their Game” by Bob Dylan

Chair of the center and UC President Michael Drake was the first guest speaker on Speech Spotlight Live. Throughout the hourlong event, Drake shared songs on his playlist for social justice today, discussed student engagement in the 2020 election, and answered questions about finding a balance between campus safety and freedom of expression.

“When we have people coming from different points of view, there are many ideas that [we] might find uncomfortable. We can’t say that we’re going to make sure you agree with everything you hear, or like everybody you meet,” Drake said. “The range of ideas in the world is much broader than that.”

Drake went on to discuss how universities train future leaders, noting the importance of residential colleges like the UCs where students live in community with each other. On Jan. 11, Drake announced that UC campuses will reopen in fall 2021, pending individualized reopening plans from each campus. 

The event concluded with Drake’s advice for audience members on staying mentally healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic, which included exercising frequently and staying optimistic that the pandemic conditions will improve with the vaccine. 

Since the start of the pandemic, scientists have tracked the surge in depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns. Mental health conditions are varied and often require individualized care. 

“Every month it should get better, every week it should get better. I’m hopeful that we’ll all continue to work together and get there by the springtime,” Drake said. “Again, it takes all of us, but I’m hopeful that we’re moving in the right direction.”

The next installment of Speech Spotlight Live will address deplatforming, a form of political activism with the goal of shutting down controversial speakers, talking with University of Chicago law professor Genevive Lakier on Feb. 23. 

The full Speech Spotlight Live featuring Michael Drake can be found here, and more information about the Center or affiliated programs can be found here.