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University of California police say demonstrators were loud but not violent during a speech by former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro in Berkeley. Police said on twitter that nine people were arrested. (Sept. 15) AP

Our First Amendment right to freely express ourselves is suddenly controversial. It's time to explore the state of free speech on campus and what tomorrow holds for democracy.

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As president of the nation’s largest public research university system, lately I’m often asked why the University of California has spent millions of dollars to ensure that provocateurs can safely exercise their right to speak hate on our campuses. Then I’m asked about the rights of our students and staff to feel safe and valued in the campus community they know as home.

In essence, what I’m asked is, “Whose side are you on?”

More than half a century since the Free Speech Movement was born on the UC Berkeley campus, suddenly up for debate is the principle that each of us has a First Amendment right to freely express ourselves, wherever and however we want.

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A broad range of people — from college students to university presidents to legal scholars and even the president of the United States — question whether this still makes sense. These questions, however, are too often phrased as taunts and sneers, and social media echo chambers amplify the noise. 

Civil discourse between those with opposing views seems a quaint relic of the past.

The law recognizes only narrow exceptions to Americans’ inalienable right to free speech — and for reasons essential to our democracy, this is as it should be.

But many passionately disagree. This has engendered disturbing acts of violence, intolerance and attempted speech suppression at Berkeley, at Middlebury College and at the campus Thomas Jefferson founded, the University of Virginia. The president tweets that professional athletes whom he believes have disrespected the American flag should be fired at once.

But whose rights take precedence? Should all protests be accorded the same deference? Do right and wrong even matter anymore? And who decides what is right? Who should foot the bill? Is there a financial threshold where the costs of protecting everybody’s rights become simply too much to bear?

These are valid, urgent questions, and colleges and universities — especially public ones — are uniquely suited to take them on. These are America’s crucibles of learning and discovery, places to pressure test controversial ideas and theories, to poke the status quo, to build wisdom and resilience, to learn from the strange and new.

To do this, however, we need to listen and talk to each other, with respect for each other’s humanity and the right to disagree.

In the midst of a revolutionary expansion in ways to communicate with each other, we increasingly surround ourselves with those of like mind, pointedly excluding others with a different world view. We say it’s easier, more comfortable, and even less confrontational, that way. Our polarized country is the result.

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The time has come to explore in a thoughtful, deliberative way the state of free speech at our nation’s colleges and universities, students’ once and future relationship with the First Amendment, and what tomorrow holds for engaging people in our democracy. 

We need to bring together people of different backgrounds, experiences and political views from across the country and apply the best legal, social science, journalistic and other research to inform policies on our campuses, in our state legislatures and in Washington, D.C.

To drive this effort, I am launching the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement at UCDC, the University of California’s Washington location. Cognizant of both the enduring constitutional principles of free speech and the nature of our changing times, the center and its roster of fellows will focus on addressing whether and how students’ relationship to the First Amendment has fundamentally shifted from the 1960s — and how to restore trust in the value and importance of free speech among students and society at large. 

Yes, this is a significant undertaking, with at least as many potential dimensions as there are in American culture as a whole. There is no one “right” answer. That’s what a professor might tell students to encourage them to speak freely and fearlessly, confident that their voices will be heard.

That is what I am aiming for in this effort, a coming together in good faith and with open and engaged minds. Our country needs and deserves this. There is no time to waste.

Janet Napolitano is president of the University of California. She has served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Arizona governor, Arizona attorney general and U.S. attorney.  

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