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Campus free speech is essential for the 'marketplace of ideas,' leaders say at Berkeley event

Chancellor Carol Christ spoke with Condoleezza Rice about the college classroom as a marketplace for ideas and how that space for sharing is increasingly breaking down.

By Jason Pohl

Three people seated on a stage holding microphones and speaking to an audience about the importance and challenges of protecting free speech.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, center, spoke with Andy Barkett and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Monday, March 25, about the importance of the "continuous project" of teaching about free speech on college campuses.

Keegan Houser/UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Monday for a conversation in Zellerbach Auditorium on a subject that couldn't have been more timely: free speech on college campuses. 

Speech, they agreed, is increasingly distorted by knee-jerk reactions and social media silos. Occasionally interrupted by protesters, the two leaders said free speech is a fundamental, albeit noisy, part of a functioning democracy. And it's absolutely essential that the college classroom remains a space for that open exchange of opinions — even opinions that stray far from our own. 

"Of all the places that we have to have a marketplace of ideas," Rice said, "it's the university." 

Organized by the College of Letters and Science's Baxter Liberty Initiative, the talk, "Free Speech in Higher Education," was held at a trying moment for campus speech, at Berkeley and beyond. Universities have become a hub for volatile demonstrations, particularly since the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Students have felt alienated and angry. Campus leaders have navigated months of protests and political backlash.

Condoleezza Rice speaking into a microphone while looking into the audience
Condoleezza Rice

Keegan Houser/UC Berkeley

Educating college students about free speech — and its limits — is a "continuous project for the university," Christ said. That's especially true since new students arrive each year. 

"Just because you have the right to say something doesn't mean that it's right to say," Christ said, adding that speech protections are broad but should not come at the expense of constructive dialogue and the Berkeley Principles of Community. 

The 10-or-so protesters inside Zellerbach Hall, seated among some 350 attendees, decried Rice's role in the George W. Bush administration. At one point, they held up a banner near the stage with the words "War Criminal." Other demonstrators sporadically stood and shouted profanity about Christ's decision to close People's Park. Some shouted "Free Palestine." A few disruptions lasted several minutes while Christ and Rice waited for event staff to escort protesters from the auditorium. 

People and their views are more complex than any label.
UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ

"One of the ways forward is to resist the kind of labeling that seems to go on almost as a knee-jerk reaction," Christ said, reflecting on the demonstrators in the audience. "I think it's so important that we understand that people and their views are more complex than any label." 

Added Rice: "Jumping to the labels really empowers the extremes."

Rice was secretary of state from 2005 to 2009. She's also a professor of political science at Stanford University, where she was once provost and is now director of the Hoover Institution. Higher education, she said, is an essential marketplace for ideas and where students learn to make sense of the world. It's essential, she said, that the marketplace not collapse. 

"We are not here to teach our students what to think," she said. "We are here to teach them how to think."

As an example, Rice said she regularly has her students review commentary from critics of the Bush administration's actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said she wants to show students that her opinions don't matter and that what matters is their ability to make and defend quality arguments of their own. 

"Without free speech," Rice said, "we can't seek the truth."

Carol Christ, seated on the middle of a stage, gestures with her right arm toward the crowd while discussing her views on free speech on college campuses
"Just because you have the right to say something doesn't mean that it's right to say," Christ said.

Keegan Houser/UC Berkeley

Monday's talk came during the final few months of Christ's seven-year term as chancellor. 

Near the end of Monday's event, Christ said she's often asked if being a university chancellor is like being a CEO. Not quite, she said, adding that it's more like being the mayor of "a very complicated city."

"And in our cities today, the fringes have lost the confidence that we can have conversation and so choose the tactic that you saw a lot today, repeatedly, of shutting down speech rather than engaging in speech," Christ said. "I know we're all going to again commit ourselves to teaching what I think is the most fundamental lesson of a democracy: that you always have to vote for free speech, even when it's deeply uncomfortable for you."