UC Berkeley and the Frayed Free Speech Movement

Mario Savio once said:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

The context was that he had just returned to the UC Berkeley campus from a stint in Mississippi where he had been physically attacked for participating in the Summer Project to register black voters. At Cal, he wanted to raise money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) but was precluded from doing so on campus by existing university policy which restricted fundraising for political parties to the Democratic and Republican school clubs and did not otherwise allow “advocacy of political causes or candidates, outside political speakers, recruitment of members, and fundraising by student organizations.” When another student was arrested for fundraising for CORE, protests erupted and the Free Speech Movement began in earnest. Savio became the most influential and eloquent leader of that movement, causing the FBI to harass and violate his rights for over a decade.

There are two parts to Savio’s legacy. The first is his successful insistence that students have the right to speak freely on campus and to advocate for political parties and causes that may be broadly unpopular or controversial. The other is the means by which he won this battle and the belief (which he helped activate) that you can “put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus” and prevent “the machine” from working at all if you don’t get the reforms or the policies that you want.

The two distinct legacies were in conflict yesterday as black bloc anarchists took over a peaceful protest on UC Berkeley’s campus and proceeded to throw bricks and firecrackers at the police, set fires, break windows both on campus and off, bloody several bystanders, and strike fear into passing motorists.

The protesters, both the peaceful and the violent ones, turned out to shut down a planned speaking engagement by Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and to voice their displeasure with the Trump administration in which former Breitbart head honcho Steve Bannon has emerged as a shockingly powerful player.

Protesters decried President Trump’s policies as much as they did the visit by Yiannopoulos, a gay conservative who has been making the rounds at college campuses across the country with his “Dangerous Faggot” talks, specializing in remarks meant to insult, offend and disgust liberals who disagree with his ideas…

…Yiannopoulos’ appearances at some universities have resulted in violent confrontations between protesters and his supporters. Some private universities have barred him, and Twitter banned him in July for repeatedly breaking harassment and abuse policies.

Berkeley College Republicans said all 500 tickets had been sold for Yiannopoulos’ scheduled appearance in Pauley Ballroom in the student union building. Yiannopoulos was expected to use the event to kick off a campaign against “sanctuary campuses” that have vowed to protect students in the country illegally as President Trump cracks down on illegal immigration.

The university’s administration knew there would be trouble, especially since a riot occurred at the Cal-Davis campus on January 13th that shut down Yiannopoulos’s planned appearance there. Still, they refused to act like “the machine” that Savio had attacked in the mid-1960’s:

University officials had earlier rejected requests to cancel Yiannopoulos’ appearance. In a letter to the campus community last week, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said, “The U.S. Constitution prohibits UC Berkeley, as a public institution, from banning expression based on its content or viewpoints, even when those viewpoints are hateful or discriminatory.”

Of course, things aren’t so simple. Just as the First Amendment protects “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” but not to throw bricks at cops, light fires and destroy public and private property, the U.S. Constitution does not actually compel public universities to allow every kind of speech, or to allow it in every possible format.

If you talk to some of the peaceful student demonstrators, they certainly can sound sympathetic:

UC Berkeley junior Fatima Ibrahim, 20, who clutched a “resist fear” sign with a red fist, said the timing of Yiannopoulos’ scheduled appearance stung.

“As a black Muslim woman, all three of those identities have been targeted throughout (Trump’s) campaign,” Ibrahim said. “To have someone like (Yiannopoulos) come into my campus and affirm those people’s beliefs, it’s very, very hurtful.”

I definitely hear what Ms. Ibrahim is saying, but any political speech that is worth a damn is hurtful to someone. If I were to give a speech at Pat Robertson’s Regent University, my opinions would be hurtful to their student body. The certainty that a political speaker will offend and wound people’s feelings is not enough, alone, to justify denying them a forum.

On the other hand, this man has a point:

But UC Berkeley sophomore Jonathan Gow, 19, rejected Yiannopoulos’ insistence that free speech took a hit.

“The whole reason we’re here is for free speech,” Gow said. “Milo’s hate speech is not allowed here. When it’s hate speech, our free speech is to shut him down.”

This is a bit different than arguing that the administrators should have denied Yiannopoulos a platform. It’s arguing that the students have the right to put their bodies upon the apparatus and put a stop to speech that they considerable objectionable. It’s a justification for direct action. By exercising their right to speech and assembly, they can deny others the same right.

This is problematic but still defensible, I think, until people start lighting fires and throwing bricks.

Today, the Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s is celebrated but it shouldn’t be forgotten that the backlash against it gave us Ronald Reagan and Edwin Meese. Today, the backlash will be against leftists who can’t successfully separate themselves and their causes from anarchists who look to take advantage of peaceful protests to push their own agenda. The backlash will also come against folks who think their feelings are more important than actual free speech.

Right now, the College Republicans at Berkeley are feeling like huge winners, and they are:

Hours after the event was canceled, the College Republicans issued a statement declaring the Free Speech Movement dead. “It is tragic that the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement is also its final resting place,” the statement said.

But let’s not let it be lost here that the cause of all of this was something that shouldn’t be controversial at all. And that’s the fact that the College Republicans invited a man to speak who is loathsome in every respect and whose opinions are scarcely more appropriate at an institution of higher learning than the opinions of White Aryans and Nazis and Klansmen. If they wanted to have a debate about “sanctuary campuses” that shelter people Trump wants to deport, they could have found many opponents of that policy capable of speaking about it thoughtfully and respectfully. The College Republicans didn’t want a real debate. They wanted to give voice to a provocateur and to get some titillation from hearing someone insult liberals in ways that are too obscene and disreputable for them to engage in themselves.

It’s events like this that make me increasingly angry and impatient with everyone. The only people I can’t fault here are the administrators, which is another sign that things have taken a wacky turn since the heyday of the Free Speech Movement.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.