UC Regents Delay Vote on Policy That Would Limit Political Opinions on Department Websites

The UC Board of Regents said it will continue to accept feedback and consider the policy that would restrict where academic departments can publish political speech.
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Published on March 22, 2024
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  • The UC Board of Regents has delayed a vote on a controversial policy regulating political speech until May.
  • The proposed guidelines would prohibit academic departments from publishing political opinions on the homepage of their website and require all statements to be accompanied by a disclaimer.
  • The Academic Senate expressed worries over free speech and academic freedom.

Once again, the University of California (UC) Board of Regents has delayed a vote on a controversial policy that would regulate political speech on university websites until May.

The proposed rule would prohibit academic departments from publishing political opinions on the homepage of their website. It was first introduced in January, but the vote was postponed until March for more review.

The March 20 meeting, held at the University of California, Los Angeles, was mired by protests from individuals who opposed the policy. Shortly after the board began to consider the policy, Regent Jay Sures, a main proponent of the policy, was interrupted by protesters. Sures called the protest an "unlawful assembly" and requested a recess to clear the room.

The policy, which the UC Academic Senate has called an "overly broad and simplistic approach to a complex set of issues," has been criticized for having the potential to impede the academic freedom and free speech rights of faculty.

The issue of political statements by departments came to a head on Oct. 9, after Regents Chair Richard Leib and UC President Michael Drake issued a statement calling Hamas' attack on Israel "terrorism" and "sickening and incomprehensible," saying that "this act deserves and requires our collective condemnation."

A week later, on Oct. 16, the UC Ethnic Studies Faculty Council released a statement countering the university, saying that it "distort[ed] and misrepresent[ed] the unfolding genocide of Palestinians in Gaza" and "contribute[s] to the racist and dehumanizing erasure of Palestinian daily reality."

"We have no confidence that the UC administration comprehends or respects its obligation to make public statements that demonstrate a full understanding of this historical moment," the letter read.

Sures, who also serves as vice chairman at United Talent Agency, called the letter from the UC Ethnic Studies Faculty Council "appalling and repugnant," in an Oct. 31 letter, saying: "Your letter is rife with falsehoods about Israel and seeks to legitimize and defend the horrific savagery of the Hamas massacre of October 7."

In the Jan. 24 regents meeting, Regent Hadi Makarechian said the board was considering the policy because departments published political statements "related to the war between Hamas and Israel" on official webpages.

Sures justified the need for the policy saying that, in his view, "an abuse of a UC website" had occurred and that "in light of world events and comments made by regents at [the] meeting … UC needed a policy."

The Proposed Policy

Under the proposed policy, departments interested in distributing or publishing discretionary statements would be required to include a disclaimer saying that the statement is not issued on behalf of the university or the campus.

Statements would also not be allowed to appear on the main homepage of the department's website and instead would have to be published on a separate page designated for that use.

Discretionary statements are defined as statements that are not part of the department's day-to-day operations and comment on institutional, local, national, or global events, according to the policy draft.

Departments would also be required to draft procedures for issuing discretionary statements, make their policies publically available, and hold anonymous votes on statements before they are published.

The first draft of the policy proposed in January was even more restrictive, saying that "official channels of [university] communication … should not be used for purposes of publicly expressing the personal or collective opinions of unit members or of the entity …" It did not provide any alternative ways for departments to express their opinions, such as subpages or requiring a disclaimer.

Ty Alper, who served as chair of the University of California's Committee on Academic Freedom from 2021-2022, wrote in a February op-ed in CalMatters that as the policy was written, it would prohibit faculty members' opinions on any subject from any university-run website or entity, a "pretext for the suppression of controversial faculty speech."

In his opening remarks March 20, Sures said that preserving academic freedom and freedom of speech is "absolutely imperative" as they consider the type of policy. Sures also noted that the updated proposal follows most of the UC Academic Senate's 2022 recommendations on departmental political statements.

The recommendations from the University Committee on Academic Freedom included allowing departments to issue or endorse statements in the department's name, provided they use a disclaimer that clearly states the group does not speak for the university as a whole.

The committee also recommended departments develop bylaws that lay out how they draft and vote on a statement. However, the group did not endorse restricting speech from department homepages.

"There is an easy fix to avoid confusion, which our 2022 recommendations addressed: simply require that political statements are accompanied by clear disclaimers, like the one atop the UC San Diego Ethnic Studies website," Alper wrote.

The Academic Senate also raised issues with another version of the proposed policy and voted unanimously against endorsing it, asking the regents to reject the policy or delay their consideration to address their concerns.

In a March 15 letter to Regents Chair Leib, the Senate criticized the draft policy for being an "overly broad and simplistic approach to a complex set of issues" and said it had the potential to limit free speech and academic freedom and could allow "external actors" to harass faculty and university with allegations of violations.

"Department websites often serve as platforms for scholarly communications, applying academic expertise to ongoing economic, social, and political issues," the letter read. "Imposing blanket restrictions on personal or collective opinions could hinder scholarly discourse and limit academic freedom."

The Senate also took issue with the accelerated process of considering the policy, noting the "hurried" drafting of the policy and "compressed" review schedule.

"The proposed policy raises numerous content and implementation issues, and is vague, impractical, possibly unenforceable, likely counterproductive, and appears inconsistent with the university’s adherence to principles of free expression and academic freedom," the letter read.

"If the regents are unable to resolve the questions and address the complexities identified, the board should not move forward with a systemwide policy."