Christine Gregoire on Free Expression and Civil Discourse

female in academic gown

October 03, 2022
Gonzaga Law

A Conversation with Christine Gregoire (’77 J.D.)

The Honorable Christine Gregoire served two terms as governor of Washington and now is CEO of Challenge Seattle, an alliance of CEOs from 21 of the Puget Sound’s largest employers dedicated to addressing critical issues facing Washingtonians, such as homelessness, racial equity, and education. In 2021, she co-chaired a task force that authored a report, issued by the Bipartisan Policy Center, titled “Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap.” On May 6, when Gov. Gregoire received the Law Medal at Gonzaga commencement, Dean Jacob Rooksby sat down to discuss campus free expression and civil discourse. Following is that conversation, edited for space and clarity.

Dean Rooksby: What motivated the Bipartisan Policy Center to issue the report?

Gov. Gregoire: I had just left office and there was an incident at the University of Washington where an ultraconservative individual was invited by the College Republicans to speak on campus. There was a lot of controversy associated with it. The president called me and asked what I thought, and I said, “Campuses are the heart of free expression and the protection of First Amendment free speech. So let the person come.” Well, the person came and there was a demonstration the day of the speech that led to a shooting on campus. That same speaker then went to speak at the University of California, Berkeley, and literally a fire broke out during a demonstration. So, I took this issue to the Bipartisan Policy Center because I observed that boards of trustees were leaving their presidents hung out to dry on these highly contentious issues. And I said, “Surely we can begin the process of ensuring that we’re protecting freedom of speech on our campuses, and that we are supporting these presidents who take the risk and encourage everybody on campus to support a culture where it’s right to have freedom of expression.”

How has the report been received?

Gov. Gregoire: The reception has been amazing. Presidents read about what goes on at other campuses, and I think most of them are thinking, “Please don’t let that happen on my campus.” What we were trying to share is that it is going to happen on your campus. You have to assume that, and you have to be prepared.

How do you think universities can enhance viewpoint diversity on campus?

Gov. Gregoire: Social media is a major contributor. The dynamics have changed considerably by virtue of it. And we have created with the students a cancel culture on campuses that leads to a lack of willingness to communicate because of the fear of what social media will do to them. At the same time, look at what’s happening around the country: Students at a prestigious law school shouted down a conservative speaker, not letting that individual speak at all. It’s very disconcerting, because to me, higher education is where you prepare your citizens of tomorrow to be open to different experiences and different viewpoints. Most particularly at law schools.

What are the best institutions doing to balance these tensions?

Gov. Gregoire: Institutions we found to be successful said to first-year students early on, “Here is the culture of this campus. And yes, we are going to put free expression at the center of it. And you may not feel comfortable about some things that are said, but that is life. You’re not going to be comfortable anyplace else, but you can be uncomfortable and be safe here.” And that’s the duty of any higher education institution, I believe: to ensure that students can hear what they don’t want said, while also giving them the skills to manage their own discomfort.

Where do you see our democracy headed?

Gov. Gregoire: I think the country is under the gun. Many citizens today live in communities that are like-minded. They only look at social media that is like-minded. They only watch television programs that are like-minded. Hence, we don’t have a diversity of thinking or experience. So I am concerned about the direction the country is taking. In times past we refused to hear the Left. Now we seem to be disassociating ourselves from the Right. We should listen to both. We’re better as a country when we do. And if you want a point of contrast, just look at what’s going on in the rest of the world. Is that how we want to live? I don’t think so.

What’s the opportunity for a private institution like Gonzaga to engage in the work of improving civil discourse?

Gov. Gregoire: I didn’t come to Gonzaga just to get a legal education. I could have gotten that at any law school. I wanted an education that was about value-driven lawyering and value- driven leadership, and that’s this institution. That’s what you learn here. You learn that, yes, you make decisions based on truth. Yes, you learn about ethics. But you learn much more than that. Gonzaga isn’t just about legal ethics. Again, we can all study that. An education at Gonzaga Law is more than just learning how to practice law. It’s character. It’s learning how to be a good citizen and a good lawyer and making the world a better place in the process.

See more from the 2022 law magazine