Farrakhan and UC Berkeley’s free speech fallacy

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It’s surprising that UC Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement, is unable to handle free speech. I’m referring to, most recently, the widespread hysteria over the Black Student Union’s decision to host the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan at UC Berkeley.

Farrakhan, one of six speakers scheduled to address the 2012 Afrikan Black Coalition conference at UC Berkeley this weekend, has a history of making homophobic, anti-Semitic and racist comments. Though he has espoused bigotry, he shouldn’t be caricatured as a degenerate ideologue: Farrakhan is a transformative figure in the black community who organized and led the Million Man March on Washington in 1995, and has worked to rehabilitate ex-convicts.

But I don’t want to dissect Farrakhan’s complicated character. I want to address the campus’ reaction to Farrakhan’s invitation to speak, which has been emphatically at odds with UC Berkeley’s legacy of free speech.

Tikvah, a Jewish student group, first implied that Farrakhan should be forbidden from addressing the Afrikan Black Coalition in a shrill blog post on Monday. Because “Farrakhan’s visit directly attacks Jewish students on this campus,” his visit is “unacceptable” and “cannot be tolerated,” according to Tikvah’s post. The group urges readers to contact the dean of students and the ASUC to tell them “that this event is unacceptable.” This response conflicts not only with UC Berkeley’s tradition of ensuring the existence of an open marketplace of ideas (even offensive ones), but with Tikvah’s own interests: If Tikvah sets a precedent of recommending the suppression of offensive speakers, Tikvah’s freedom to invite whichever speakers it pleases will be jeopardized in the future.

Unfortunately, student government leaders perpetuated Tikvah’s attack on free speech. In a strained op-ed printed in The Daily Californian on Tuesday, four of five ASUC executives went to great lengths to try and reconcile the principles of free speech with their suggestion that it is “unacceptable” for Farrakhan to speak on campus. They try to distinguish Farrakhan from other “controversial speakers,” who “should, of course, be allowed at UC Berkeley” by claiming that “communities will be cut off from this event by feeling uncomfortable and intimidated by his words.” The authors seem to miss the point of protecting free speech. Speech that does not make people feel uncomfortable is not in need of protection.

But perhaps the op-ed’s most extraordinary assertion is that “there is a hard line between upholding free speech and instigating divisiveness.” Surely the authors would not suggest that speech should be proscribed because it is “divisive.” The executives go on to appeal to “the delicate campus climate” in order to justify their calls for censorship. But the campus climate is best served by a free and open exchange of ideas — where “good” speech, not censorship, is the bulwark against offensive speech.

This isn’t the first time the campus has floated around the idea of banning unpopular speech. In September 2011, when news got out that the Berkeley College Republicans were planning a bake sale to protest affirmative action, the ASUC Senate called an emergency meeting amid calls for the ASUC to revoke funding for the group. Before the meeting, ASUC officials, including President Vishalli Loomba, warned that the Berkeley College Republicans’ ASUC funding was in jeopardy. The ASUC then passed a resolution condemning the bake sale and explicitly reiterating the ASUC’s ability to defund the College Republicans. No formal action was ultimately taken against the College Republicans, just as the campus is unlikely to actually prevent Farrakhan from speaking on campus. But it’s disturbing that in both cases censorship and coercion were widely seen as legitimate responses to offensive speech.

The notion that UC Berkeley students are so delicate that we must be shielded from uncomfortable speech is patronizing and insulting. Supressing Farrakhan is undoubtedly more dangerous than anything he could possibly say.

A previous version of this post implied that Tikvah called for students to contact the ASUC and the dean of students to urge them to prevent Farrakhan from speaking. In fact, Tikvah called for students to contact the dean of students and the ASUC to tell them “that this event is unacceptable.”

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  • kareemii

    Those Within The Jewish Community Must Come To Terms With The Reality, This Is No Longer A Intellectual Controlled Environment, Any Attempt To Disguise Free Speech As A Controlled Mechanism , With The Attempt To Dictate To Other Ethnic Groups To Whom To Support Is A Blind Misguided Cause.
    A Prez Shabazz

  • befree2012

    Why is Farrakhan the most hated man in America?   The Bible says: And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (John 8:32).  Farrakhan teaches black people to be:
    Proud of their heritage, self-sufficient, property owners, investors, inventors, producers, debt free, eat healthy, help others and to be knowledgeable of history.
    He teaches them not to:
    Use drugs, sell drugs, engage in illegal activities, go to prison, be aggressors of violence, dress inappropriately or depend on others.
    Yes he uses unorthodox rhetoric to get his point across, but so does Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Shaun Hanity and the like.  Most of his so called anti-Semitic remarks come straight from the Bible: the synagogue of Satan (Rev. 2:9 & 3:9), Devils (John 8:44) and the wrath of God has come upon them (1 Thess 2: 14-16) to name a few.  Since I don’t think the Bible is anti-Semitic in anyway, I can’t see how these same statements Farrakhan uses (from the Bible) should paint him as anti-Semitic. Looping sound bites over and over sounds bad, but just like reading the Bible you must read or hear it in its context to understand the true meaning of the text, speech, etc. 

  • armour

    It is true that the value of free speech implies that there will be disagreements, as does the value of diversity. That is not the issue here. The issue is whether we as a community care whether the disagreements are pursued in a civil fashion and avoid gratuitous pain to others and hate speech. That is where Farrakhan falls short. He has some positive messages, but then destroys their effectiveness with hateful nonsense. Choosing to listen to him instead of others who can manage the same positive messages without the garbage is a poor choice. Nothing more or less.

  • LeCalabro

    What troubles me is that Minister Farrakhan expresses anti-semetic, anti-gay and anti white views, but his anti-white views are ignored.

    And, I do not know of any criminal attacks on Jews or gays by blacks, but I sure do know about the San Francisco Zebra killings 1973/74 of white Americans by members of NOI.

    NOI followers murdered 16 white San Franciscans and maybe as many as 71 whites in California and several hundred throughout America–but that is all forgotten.  

    Our school children know about the Jewish and Black holocausts, but they do not know about the hundreds of thousands of attacks on white Americans by their fellow black Americans. 

    Minister Farrakhan should tell it all—for the truth will set us all free. 

  • Adam

    You are free to speak at UC Berkeley as long as you are not a white male Christian Republican.  Those despicable creatures must be quarantined until the disease neds.

  • Brian

    I respect Farrakhan’s right to speak; I have no respect for the organizations and individuals responsible for inviting him. 

  • Cato

    Interesting. And what would the reaction be from the hippies on that campus to a speaker from the Aryan Nation?

  • Leoroarbig

    Both Bush and Obama on their knees at the Vatican kissed the Pope’s arse…
    According to Catholic Canon Law every person on the planet belongs to the Pope and the Catholic Church…Canon Law rules American BAR Association and American Jurisprudence ( our court system)might this explain why pedophile priests by and large rarely get prison as opposed to continued availability to rape more children..
    this also holds true for pedophiles in all religions….but lo and behold you get convicted of some “victimless” crime off you go to the pen to make even more money for their (the Nazi/catholic/CIA Bankers/Aristocrats) system…
    Their “illusory” game is hundreds of years old and they are now in a “Harvest mode”
    And they maintain Spiritual Superiority by virtue of having convinced the masses
    to murder by the millions daily Creators cherished Animals…Sentients like us..
    You see “Racism”…true Racism is against the non-human Sentients (Animals)or simply stated other races……Yet the Aristocrats have long created pretty good reasons for people of color to wage war against other persons of color….both in America and in Afrikaan nations their still exists serious attitudes of “fair skinned blacks” against “darkskinned blacks”
    By virtue of Canon Law you see there is no Separation of Church and State
    People respond to me saying Jesus ate fish citing the Fish & Loaves story…
    The true version be that He cast forth the BREAD ( the Truth) and reeled in the Fish
    (the True Believers)
    “As you do unto the Least of Me…( the Least of Me was and still is a reference to all Animals)
    GOSPEL OF THE ESSENES….in which Jesus speaks the most as a feminist vegetarianis both short and Beautiful …and you will quickly see why the Patriarchs kept it out of the bible…even the Koran speaks of Jesus(but not well enough)
    All religions in America are registered as NON-Prophets…who in their right mind seeks to learn of the Almighty Creator (Allah) from a Non-Prophet ????

  • Who can be right if everyone is wrong……….Catholic Correctors rewrote texts centuries back and imposed them upon the Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions
    to rule them all as a “Bloodcult”
    Thee True definition of murder included All of Almighty’s Animals…and this alone is what undermines all progress to Thee Promised Land…the Place of Peace……
    Free of ALL Opression…….equally important be the abuse of Earth Mother’s Blood (OIL)
    Adolf Hitler came to California via Project Paperclip ( still a National Security secret)
    Adolphus Heidler was of the bloodline of the Usurist banking family Rothschild..
    He came here w 80 million…and died in Lake County Ca. in 1986…
    Bill Clinton’s father was Winthrop Rockefeller of the Banking family usurists fame…
    Heidler had over 100 thousand Jews in his military including Generals……

    So what to see is that wealthy Jewish Aristocracy together w other Jewish and non-Jewish Aristocrats rule and maintain war by Catholic deception back then as they do today….the Anti-Defamation League is but a legal propaganda arm of these Aristocrats………just like the pedophile Barney Frank the Queer Aristocrat…..
    these Aristocrats don’t care about the average Jew or Christian or Muslim…
    they are trained in the Art of Deception and Illusion….
    As for Farrakhan’s homophobia (or is he also a Muslim Aristocrat)……………
    Matters not a thing of religions or sexual persuasion we are 1st and foremost
    Spiritual Children of Creator…..so let us now BeCome the Liberator…….
    “Let us together NOW lay down the Sword all in service to the Living Lord…
    Free the animals One and All…the 40 Day Mother of All Boycotts Be NOW the Call”
    I am Peter…I am yor servant….the Authority Be mine to say as I do……..
    as the Authority Be Ours to See this all through”

  • Jacob Lewis

    In this column, Willick twists the words I used on the Tikvah blog condemning Farrakhan. I encourage readers to express their outrage that the BSU would bring an antisemite, racist, sexist, homophobes to speak. That said, the BSU has the freedom to associate with who they would like and Farrakhan has the right to say what he wants. At the same time, all those targeted by Farrakhan’s hate should exercise their own rights and speak out against Farrakhan’s hate speech.

    Shame on the Daily Cal for misrepresenting my words to make a cheap point. This breach of journalistic integrity is unacceptable.

    • Anonymous

      How exactly did he twist your words?

      • Jacob Lewis

        I don’t call for Farrakhan to be prevented from speaking.

    • anony

      The same thing happens when the MSA or SJP etc  wants to have a speech or program, certain Jewish groups complain that any speech on the conditions of Palestine is anti-semitic and poses a threat to them.
      At times, the MSA and SJP cannot book rooms or are required extra expense to make those students feel comfortable.
      This ties in to the censorship on UC campuses like UC Irvine and the “Irvine 11” who did not have the same clout on campus so they voiced their objection to having Amb.Oren speak and those students were arrested, attacked by an ‘old’ audience (shame), threatened and then they were tried by the D.A in OC.
      Hopefully the BSU and other groups will ban together as a powerhouse and also make contacts and use pressure like the other group does, to reverse things.

      • J.K.

        Even though I completely disagree with his views, he absolutely should have the right to speak if he is invited as a speaker.  And I hope no students heckle him to try to interfere with his talk.   
        At the same time, I have no problem with people voicing their opposition to statements he has made and his idealogy by protesting outside the event or expressing their concern online or the press that he was being invited as a speaker to the campus.   Nor do I have a problem with people trying to discuss with the BSU why they think he may not be a good speaker to invite to speak on the campus.

        And you don’t know what you are talking about when you bring up UC Irvine.   The MSU at UC Irvine have never been prevented from brining a speaker on the campus and they have invited many controversial ones.   For example, Malik Ali was invited several times over the past few years and he is an open supporter of three groups the US State Department considers terrorsits organizations.  

        If the “Irvine 11” opposed Oren’s views, they should have protested outside and voiced their perspective online and to the university paper.   Their emails show they went to the lecture to shut it down and prevent Oren from saying whatever he wanted on the campus.    They did not engage in protected rights of free speech.    They were wrong to prevent an invited speaker from being heard.    

      • anon

        Please acknowledge that when speakers from Israel come to UC Berkeley (or UC Davis, for that matter) or even just to attend  a non-political conference, they are protested and often attempted to be shut down.  

      • Leekaplan

        We always hear the same baloney from the SJP, MSU, or the BSU. They are merely allowing the free flow of ideas, their freedom of speech and academic speech are being curtailed, they can’t get a room (a bold faced lie as usual).
        The problem with Farakkahn speaking is not the disemmination of unpopular ideas, it is the deliberate lying and racism that he brings with him to these events that lend him legitimacy by their being held at a UC flagship campus. When Farrakkhan, who was paid money by Mohammar Ghaddafy calls Judaism a “gutter religion”, when he attacks gays, when he even accuses Jews and Israel of 9/11 he isn’t just espousing unpopular views–he’s lying and denying the real reason behind academic freedom–the pursuit of truth through research. If David Duke came to campus and said black students were a “gutter people” or “mud people”, if a gay spokesperson accused black students of creating AIDS, or if attempts were made to castigate the black community, he sould enver be allowed on campus. Inviting Farrakkhan to speak is like inviting Josef Stalin to campus to speak about the horrible America during the height of the Cold War and his pogroms on his own people.  Farrakkhan oes not belong on a UC campus. The SJP and ZMSU have managed to bring serial liars and anti-Semites on campus before to lie about Israel and the Jewish community, so this Farrakhan appearance is just a continuation of such a travesty. I note in the same sentence the SJP fan above conplains about the Irvine 11 who were found guilty of conspiracy in a court of law but insist that anything they want to do is OK.

      • Cal ’80

        The “Irvine 11” were arrested because they shouted down Amb. Oren and didn’t allow him to speak.  Free Speech means allowing people to express their opinions and to have a back and forth dialogue, not shouting people down. 

  • LtBoaltie

    1) ”
    Tikvah, a Jewish student group” – I took undergraduate reporting, and when someone in the class made a fact error, they would get an automatic F on their story. Check your facts! I am not a member of Tikvah, but I know that while Tikvah is a Zionist group, it is not a Jewish group. Its members and supporters include Jews and non-Jews alike You need to be careful in differentiating. 

    2) From my reading of the blog post (
    http://tikvahsfi.blogspot.com/2012/03/upcoming-antisemitic-event-at-uc.html ) Tikvah are not demanding that Farrakhan be banned from speaking. He has a right to speak, obviously. At the same time, I think that it is perfectly reasonable for students, particularly LGBT, Jewish, and/or people who care about social justice to speak up and let him and BSU know that we believe that this individual is repugnant in our eyes. Again, their blog post is not asking for him to be “suppressed,” as you claim – it merely implores people to make their beliefs known that this man is unacceptable. I do not expect to be “shielded” from Farrakhan, but I do believe that I have a right to let BSU know that in the future they should reconsider bringing such insensitive people to speak. 

  • Carlos

    Becky O’Malley trolls the DC?   My favorite story about her was when she wrote an op-ed about the Cal lawyers during the lawsuit of the city vs Cal over the Oak Grove.  O’Malley got personal and described the lawyers and Athletic Dept staff on how they looked — thick necked and stuff like that.  The irony is that if anyone described O’Malley, they’d have to use words like fat, lard, very fat, obese, ugly, etc.  It’s amazing when an example of over-eating and ugliness decides to deride others for their appearance.

  • ned

    Nice work, Mr. Willick.  Spot on.

  • 13Odyssey7

    A candid piece. Keep them coming, Jason.

  • Becky O’Malley

    Good piece. You’re doing journalism’s most important job: to afflict the comfortable (and comfort the afflicted too.) 

    • Stan De San Diego

       I thought the job of journalism was really to expose the truth, but hey, that’s just me.

  • Anon

    As a UC student who disagrees with just about everything Farrakhan believes in, I sincerely support his right to speak.  There are a few things that must be considered here:

    1) In modern America the only speech that still needs protecting is controversial speech like Farrakan’s. Free speech is a two way street. I am grateful for my ability to voice my opinions and thus I must allow others to express theirs.

    2) If Farrakhan’s words are as ridiculous as his opponents claim then they should be easily dismissed by the vast majority of his audience.

    3) We can only maintain our integrity as a Public University by upholding the values of the government which supports us, therefore we must protecting free speech.

  • student
  • University Of Fail

    Yup, ASUC is full up with rank hypocrites.
    “Free speech for me, but not for thee” is the prevailing attitude amongst those pissing and moaning over Farrakhan.

    Q: How is it that the UC administration is comprised of authoritarian clowns with no respect for either the law or the fact that the institution itself is limited in its own authority by the law? (eg the UC cannot unilaterally define permissible speech, it is bound certain decisions by SCOTUS, etc.)

    A: Because today’s administrators were yesteryear’s students. Today’s Joey Freeman and Vishalli Loomba are tomorrow’s Dean Poullard and Harry Le Grand. Ouch

  • Jamie

    Ah, the time-honored conflict between twin cherished values of free speech and diversity, so often espoused as inseparable, yet in reality often conflicting. The humorous thing about all this is its simple nature: if diversity is genuine, there will be different ideas. If there are differing ideas, there will be disagreements. If there are disagreements, odds are there’ll be hurt feelings to some degree. Gracious! Offended sensibilities? A disequilibrium in the delicate ecosystem that is the Berkeley emotional milieu? Something must be done, and fast! Utopias don’t run themselves, you know. 

    Also, excellent point that free speech holds little weight as a concept unless the ideas are controversial, perhaps even (gasp!) offensive…the mere gathering of rival fraternities and benevolent charities to proffer their literature on Sproul is not much of a heartwarming glorification of the principles of tolerance and freedom of speech. No one is against those things. Tolerance of diversity is only manifest when there is purportedly undesirable diversity that must be tolerated. That said, I get what the ASUC is doing…they have to reaffirm that their sensibilities are in the right place, and as long as they don’t try to quash this like they did the (immeasurably less offensive) bake sale, I don’t think reasonable folks will care that they expressed themselves thusly. Again, a thoughtful, well-expressed, and rock-solid analysis. Good show. 

  • Alex Kravitz

    For crying out loud, only the GOVERNMENT can’t abridge free speech. If I don’t want Farrakhan to stand outside my home shouting epithets at me, I don’t have to let him. And I can exercise my right to call on student organizations NOT to host him if I so choose. Student government leaders can call for Farrakhan not to speak. Doesn’t mean they can stop him from doing so. I agree with you that their op-ed was full of logical fallacies. But it’s not disturbing to me that student government doesn’t want Farrakhan on campus. They’d be remiss in their duties if they didn’t assert their opposition to him. Freedom of speech is a right, and not being an asshole is a responsibility.

    • guest

      If you don’t want to hear him speak don’t attend. Duh!

  • Mrtea

    Diversity: Farrakhan, Michael Moore, Barney Frank, Cornel West. Where’s Reverend Wright? I guess Ahmahdinejad and Hugo Chavez are busy this weekend. Bill Ayers?  Probably can’t afford Bill Maher.

    • libsrclowns

      Let him speak then mock him and his religion of hate.