While happily skipping home from school last Friday, I received a frantic phone call that would completely change the course of my evening. It was a member of Berkeley College Republicans on the other line inviting me to attend an informal meeting the club’s leadership was holding to discuss their upcoming “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” that has been drawing so much controversy lately.
Now, I am not a college Republican, or even a Republican for that matter, but I do have some experience in dealing with issues of free speech. As a former intern of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization that defends civil liberties at colleges across America, I have studied several affirmative action bake sale cases before. Thus, I immediately accepted the invitation to offer my advice about what the group can and cannot do next Tuesday. On my walk over, the bright Berkeley day turned gloomy, eerily foreshadowing my change in mood.
In a darkly lit room, a nervous cluster of college Republicans sat waiting to hear the latest bit of backlash. These students are afraid for their lives. For the past few days, some of them have received violent threats through Facebook, email and even in person. As I sat listening to the sad conversation, a whirlwind of thoughts flew through my mind.
Is this the Berkeley I had dreamed about in high school? A place where people are physically threatened for speaking their mind? It seems to me that the home of the Free Speech Movement had become blatantly hypocritical, abandoning its adherence to rational discourse at points of disagreement. This thought seemed to be confirmed upon arriving at the “Emergency Town Hall” meeting hosted that night by the Rochdale Apartments co-op, where the group was promptly ejected along with reporters from The Daily Californian. Apparently diversity of opinion was not welcome at this allegedly open forum.
Let me make it absolutely clear that I am not defending the College Republicans for the content of their message. As the former president of a political club at Cal myself, I wouldn’t dare organize such a provocative event. Republicans are already demonized at our famously liberal university, and such a bake sale only makes the face of the perceived conservative enemy appear even less human. Indeed, the backlash may well be justified and has every right to be heard, so long as it remains nonviolent.
However, just as I defend their opponents’ right to voice their dissent, so too do I stand up for the College Republicans’ right to express their contentious message — all in the name of free speech that Berkeley so strongly claims to cherish. Having completed their paperwork properly, the campus has no right to shut down the event under the First Amendment. Furthermore, considering a strong legal precedent, the ASUC has no right to defund the student group because of the content of their viewpoint. Anyone who says otherwise runs contrary to the morality of freedom, the legal power of the First Amendment and the principles of the Free Speech Movement.
Indeed, Berkeley is at a crossroads between a glorified past and hypocritical future, a choice between upholding the principles of free speech we so adore or abandoning them to the tyranny of the majority. So, I ask my fellow Golden Bears, what will we be remembered as championing — freedom or censorship?
Follow Casey Given on Twitter @CaseyJGiven