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While many in the mainstream press wasted no time in blaming conservatives for creating a climate of incivility that led to the tragedy in Tucson, a leading academic, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau also stepped up to the plate several days after the event to blame what he called the “climate” of speech in Arizona for the shooting.

In an email to the campus, Chancellor Birgeneau called upon the academic community to ponder whether a climate “in which demonization of others goes unchallenged and hateful speech is tolerated can lead to such a tragedy.”

Saying that he thought it was no coincidence that this tragedy took place in a state “which has legislated discrimination against undocumented persons,” the Chancellor’s opinion was that the “same mean-spirited xenophobia played a major role in the defeat of the Dream Act by our legislators in Washington.”

Not surprisingly, his message ignited some controversy among those who favored a fact-based approach to this situation, like Adam Kissel, Vice President of Programs for FIRE.

Kissel noted that despite the national debate over whether “political expression created a climate” that led Loughner to his decision, there was no evidence that a “climate of demonization”, “mean-spirited xenophobia,” or “hateful speech” had any bearing on the fact that alleged assassin decided to go on a shooting spree. However, these ideas did appear to coincide with the views of those who had been upset beforehand over the climate of hate speech and similar issues in the country.

Kissel pointed out that since the First Amendment guarantees freedom of all speech, it is difficult to “reach widespread agreement” about “what speech is ‘hateful’ and therefore undeserving of Constitutional protection.”

Although the implication of this email is that if certain examples of hate speech go unchallenged, they might spark more violence, Kissel wonders if the Chancellor really thinks that college students are so fragile that their exposure to graffiti, racial comments or other inflammatory outbursts would really send them over the top.

Deborah Lambert writes the Squeaky Chalk column for Accuracy in Academia.