Checking In With Chancellor May: Freedom of Expression

View of Mrak Hall south lawn and building.

Checking In With Chancellor May: Freedom of Expression

To the UC Davis Community:

With the new academic year starting, I want to focus on a topic that is increasingly at the forefront of campus life: freedom of expression. It’s one of our university’s core values and vital to our higher education mission. The right to express our opinions and points of view is both an opportunity and a challenge.

The limits of free speech are being tested at college campuses and in communities across the country, with increasingly heated and divisive debates. UC Davis and our surrounding communities are no exception. We see it in almost all public spaces – online, on campus and in city meeting rooms. Yet, we cannot close off our campus to people and views we disagree with. We cannot isolate ourselves from words that are hurtful, mean-spirited or offensive.

As a reminder, the First Amendment prevents the restriction of speech with very few exceptions, including criminal threats and incitement to violence, and obscenity. Universities like ours must uphold the right of students, faculty, staff and others to express their views, even those many of us might find abhorrent or hateful. A public university cannot prohibit someone from speaking on campus based on that person’s viewpoint or the content of their message, and at UC Davis, we haven’t turned away any speaker from our campus based on their viewpoints.

Numerous benefits

Free speech is the cornerstone of a democratic society. It gives us the right to criticize our leaders and rally for change when we disagree with laws or policies. Free speech allows people from oppressed and marginalized communities to have a voice. Think about how freedom of expression has been used in recent critical moments in our country to bring change, including the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle for migrant farm workers, LGBTQ+ rights, equality for women, veterans’ rights, disability rights, Black Lives Matter and more. We still need voices heard in all of those areas.

Central to learning

College campuses, especially within the University of California, have played a central role in the evolution of freedom of expression. Students, faculty and staff have been central to debating and protesting some of our nation’s most hotly contested issues. By participating in this cornerstone democratic activity, we further develop critical thinking skills to identify disinformation and discern ideas that contribute to the advancement of truth.

Differing viewpoints

I know that for many in our community, it’s difficult to accept that free speech protections also extend to those with abhorrent views. The term “hate speech” is not defined by law, and no such category exists as an exception to the First Amendment. That means even hateful and offensive speech is protected by the First Amendment.

Let me be clear: Just because one has a right to say and do something, it doesn’t mean it’s right or that anyone has to agree with it. When freedom of expression turns hateful or encourages violence, it goes against our Principles of Community, which call for us to recognize different perspectives and commit ourselves to non-violent exchange and the highest standards of conduct.

I’ve heard from students, faculty, staff and others that not everyone feels comfortable or safe expressing their personal viewpoints in classrooms or public spaces on campus. That includes Jewish students, people of color and those in the LGBTQIA+ community. We can do better. The best learning environment is one that encourages us to listen to and examine different viewpoints, and respectfully disagree when we do. Our Principles of Community can help us find ways to express our opinions while still respecting diversity and inviting inclusion.

I ask each of you to think about how you might commit to supporting a meaningful and constructive exchange of ideas. We can start by actively listening to one another, even when we find ourselves disagreeing about contentious issues. Each of us plays a role in creating and pursuing a respectful learning environment. Each of us is responsible for embodying our Principles of Community.

Hate-Free Together initiative

We have endured some ugly incidents of hate speech on campus and in our community targeting those who are Black, Asian American, Jewish, Muslim, disabled, LGBTQIA+ and more. I have condemned each of these incidents, and I will continue to stand up for all members of our community. Hateful speech and incidents are distressing for everyone, especially for those of us who are personally targeted by racist, antisemitic or other hateful words and behaviors.

That’s why we partnered with the City of Davis and Yolo County on an initiative called Hate-Free Together. It’s based on our very successful Healthy Davis Together model, which we implemented jointly to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. This time, hate is the virus we’re trying to eradicate. The Hate-Free Together team is planning a series of community workshops for 2024, along with a new website with resources and information. The input from our community will help us consider how to prevent hate incidents and how to respond should an incident occur.


UC Davis has resources to help students, faculty and staff cope with the discomfort that the free and open exchange of ideas can bring:

  • Counseling Services provides student-centered mental health services, advocacy, outreach and consultation to promote psychological well-being and academic success. 
  • The Academic and Staff Assistance Program provides high quality, confidential counseling services for all levels of the UC Davis and UC Davis Health System staff in a safe and supportive environment using highly skilled clinicians. 
  • The Office of the Ombuds is a confidential, independent, impartial and informal problem-solving and conflict management resource for all members of the UC Davis, UC Davis Health and UC ANR communities.
  • The Harassment and Discrimination Assistance and Prevention Program is available to help in instances where discrimination or harassment based on a protected category such as race, religion or gender identity creates a hostile learning or work environment.

For students interested in learning more about engaging in self-expression on campus, please visit the Student Expression website.

Learn more

Freedom of expression is an important topic and one that I’ve discussed before, in a video message and an op-ed in Higher Ed Dive. I encourage you to learn more about free speech and civic engagement. The University of California is a leader on these issues, and in 2017 created the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement to consider how to restore trust in the value of free speech on college campuses. You can find additional information and resources on its website.

Freedom of expression is the very fabric that makes a university a unique place to grow and thrive. If we express our viewpoints in a manner that’s consistent with our Principles of Community and we allow ourselves to listen, we can learn from each other. Diversity of perspectives makes us stronger. Let’s keep this in mind as the year progresses.

We are all Aggies.


Gary S. May

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