From: Dean Erwin Chemerinsky
Date: October 21, 2022
Dear Law School Community,
My paramount goal as dean is to help Berkeley Law be a community where all feel included and that they belong and a place where all views can be expressed and are treated with respect. I have been deeply distressed to learn that some of our students have been targeted by those outside the Law School for harassment, threats, and disclosure of personal information. I condemn this in the strongest terms. Our students should be able to exercise their First Amendment rights without reprisal. I want to do all I can for the Law School to provide support for all of our students who suffer this despicable behavior.
This week, I met with many students with differing views about a matter that arose this semester in the Law School and that has attracted a great deal of outside attention. I have been asked in these meetings to clarify the Law School’s policies related to what has occurred over the last several weeks.
For those not familiar with the context of what happened, at the beginning of our semester, a law student group at Berkeley Law, the Law Students for Justice in Palestine, asked other student groups to adopt a bylaw strongly critical of Israel. A group adopting the proposed bylaw said that it would not invite “speakers that have expressed and continued to hold views or host/sponsor/promote events in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.” The proposed bylaw said that the organization would support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement, and have their members participate in training on the plight of Palestinians.
This was very upsetting to some of our students and faculty, though my sense was that the vast majority in our community were unaware of this controversy. I wrote a letter to the leaders of all student groups explaining that I strongly support the free speech of our students, but I also thought the bylaw was inconsistent with our values as a law school and our commitment that all viewpoints be expressed. I wrote: “It is troubling to broadly exclude a particular viewpoint from being expressed. Indeed, taken literally, this would mean that I could not be invited to speak because I support the existence of Israel, though I condemn many of its policies. Chancellor Carol Christ has also spoken about how the boycott, divest, and sanction movement ‘poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty, as well as the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on our campus, including debate and discourse regarding conflicts in the Middle East.’”
The bylaw and the controversy around it attracted some immediate media attention, but that quickly faded. Then three weeks ago, an article appeared that was very distorted as to what actually occurred and quite inflammatory. The article unfortunately quickly went viral and received great attention on social media and in some of the press.
To be clear, student groups have the First Amendment right to adopt this bylaw and may decide what speakers to invite based on their viewpoints. Many have demanded that the Law School adopt a position that student groups cannot exclude speakers based on their viewpoint and that the student groups that adopted the bylaw be punished. This we will not do and cannot do. Student groups for their events can, and inevitably do, choose speakers based on their views. To require student groups to invite speakers of views they loathe would violate the First Amendment as a form of compelled speech.
At the same time, no student group can exclude any speaker on the basis of race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation. That would violate Law School and campus policy, as well as state and federal law. As I have emphasized, the Law School has an “all-comers” policy where all student groups and all student events must be open to all students.
Underlying this are very deep feelings on all sides of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinians. We are not going to resolve the difficult issues of the Middle East within Berkeley Law, but we must be a place where the many views can be expressed and where we respect that this diversity is our strength. We must be a school where all students feel welcome, included, and protected. This is my commitment for Berkeley Law, and the commitment of campus leadership for our university.
We will do everything we can to help our students. I will work with Dean Hirshen to increase mental health support for our students. Our IT department is available to assist students who are being harassed online. I am eager to hear suggestions for other things we can do to support our students at this difficult time and to lessen the tensions that have developed.
We cannot control what those outside the Law School do and I fear that many are trying to use Berkeley Law to advance their own agendas. But we can control how we act and treat one another within the Law School. And I hope we all will do everything we can to be respectful and kind to one another.
Dean and Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law
University of California, Berkeley School of Law
This message was sent to all students, staff, and faculty.