University of California Dean: Academic Freedom Makes Students “Feel Unsafe”

Recently, the dean of the School of Social Welfare at the University of California at Berkeley condemned a professor’s constitutionally protected remarks, including but not limited to his mention of black-on-black crime at a Black Lives Matter event. A complaint has also apparently been filed against the professor with the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination.  

Rather than defending academic freedom, Dean Jeffrey Edelson said “we deeply regret the reported incident” involving Steven Segal, a tenured professor, who has taught at Berkeley for more than 40 years and is world-renowned for his research on mental illness. Worse, the dean said that his remarks “made the classroom environment feel unsafe” for the complaining students. The dean reportedly set up a “shadow class” for students offended by the professor’s remarks: “Students in Segal’s class were offered an alternate section” with “a different professor.” 

The University’s overreaction to Professor Segal’s speech was so absurd that a former head of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights told me that what occurred at the University of California “could just as easily be a Saturday Night Live skit.” 

But it also sets a very bad precedent for academic freedom. Why are taxpayers paying to subsidize a school of social work whose officials exhibit so little common sense—and so much disdain for constitutional free speech guarantees?

The federal appeals court with jurisdiction over the University of California has made clear that speech like Professor Segal’s cannot be banned even by labeling it as a threat to people on campus or the classroom environment. In Bauer v. Sampson, it held that a college professor's caricatures of a college president and satirical yearning for his death were protected by the First Amendment, even though the college declared it a violation of its policy against “workplace violence.” Similarly, the Ninth Circuit held that the First Amendment protected a professor’s racially charged emails about immigration, which offended Hispanic faculty, in Rodriguez v. Maricopa Community College District (2010), holding that such speech was protected by the First Amendment against a racial harassment lawsuit, even if the complainants perceived it as discriminatory or creating a racially “hostile environment.”  

Setting up a “shadow class” for offended students may also violate the First Amendment, in addition to potentially wasting taxpayer money. The practice of setting up “shadow classes” for students in classes taught by politically incorrect professors was successfully challenged on First Amendment grounds in another part of the country in Levin v. Harleston, 966 F.2d 85 (2d Cir. 1992). That decision held that a college couldn’t create shadow classes for a professor, even though that the professor said racially inflammatory things that were extremely unpopular among the public at large, such as claiming that black people were intellectually inferior on average to white people.

Students claimed that Professor “Segal brought up the subject” of black-on-black crime at a Black Lives Matter event, and in a class on a subsequent day read “aloud a rap with lyrics suggesting that the” Black Lives Matter “movement needed to stop scapegoating the police.” Upon hearing the professor’s remarks, a white progressive involved in Black Lives Matter claimed she experienced “acute awareness of rising anxiety and a desperate need for him to stop.”

But such histrionic reactions to speech do not justify censorship. A desire that a person “stop” expressing an opposing viewpoint, and “anxiety” when they do not shut up, does not legally make their viewpoint a threat that can be banned under the First Amendment. A school of social work that caters to such parochial views is doing its students a disservice. What good is a social worker who cannot handle exposure to people with different perspectives and backgrounds?

Indeed, for students at an elite university to claim they feel “unsafe” when merely exposed to a fact or viewpoint they find unpleasant is a sign they have lived a rather privileged life. When I discussed this case with a lawyer and former ACLU board member, Wendy Kaminer, she pointed out to me “that feeling seriously threatened by words, ideas, and even facts you’d rather not hear is a sort of luxury, reflecting the absence of serious threats to your safety, coupled with some need to feel vulnerable and victimized nonetheless. (Maybe they should ‘check their privilege.’) But there are pragmatic as well as emotional reasons to identify as oppressed or easily traumatized: It becomes a source of power—power to control someone else’s speech, power to suppress ideas and perspectives you oppose.”

Update: A reader takes issue with the description above as not fully capturing what the professor did, noting that students have apparently alleged that the professor asked students in his class to join in his “rap,” and allegedly “also silenced students who questioned and pushed back on his reasoning."