Has free speech become a “Dead Dogma” at Berkeley?

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Kevin Foote/Senior Staff

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement and evaluate its legacy on UC Berkeley’s campus, it is edifying to turn to John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” which remains one of the most eloquent apologies for free speech a full 155 years after it was first published. In the second chapter, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” Mill advances a utilitarian justification for welcoming debate on even our most cherished beliefs:

“However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

In light of Chancellor Dirks’ now infamous email on “Civility and Free Speech,” I humbly submit that there is an open question as to whether free speech itself has become a “dead dogma” at UC Berkeley for want of full, frequent and fearless discussion of its value.

Paradoxically, there is nothing so pernicious to the vitality of a sound precept as its universal adoption. With its general acceptance, the champions of a once-revolutionary principle are lulled into complacency as it becomes de rigueur for elites to pay it homage as an invaluable pillar of society. Once-radical notions gradually assume the dulcet timbre of anodyne truisms, and formerly profound truths are hence rendered mere platitudes.

The metric of whether thought and discussion are truly free is not the number of students who turn out to protest a matter of unanimous outrage, but rather the treatment of those who espouse currently unpopular opinions. Admirable an ideal as civility is when engaging in serious colloquy, Chancellor Dirks’ reworking of Mill’s harm principle makes it highly tempting for individuals and groups to claim that their adversaries’ speech comprises their feeling “safe and respected.”

On Friday, the Berkeley College Republicans held a protest on the iconic Mario Savio steps of Sproul Hall. The message was captured in a large, white banner that read “FREE SPEECH ≠ COMFORTABLE SPEECH.” BCR additionally distributed a flyer entitled “Berkeley’s Free Speech Hypocrisy,” which cited calls to sever academic dialogue with Israeli universities and a 2011 ASUC bill attempting to revoke BCR’s sponsorship following its affirmative action bake sale as inadvertently ironic exercises of free speech.

As Claire Chiara, BCR president and former Daily Cal reporter, noted, “Questioning and battling the status quo were integral parts of the Free Speech Movement, and allowing and preserving controversial discourse was the goal.” While the administration’s brand of orthodoxy has undergone a significant transformation since the ’60s, the fact remains that countervailing perspectives encounter a formidable hurdle due to what Mill termed the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.”

To invoke Thomas Jefferson’s ideas in today’s classroom is more likely than not to be reminded by one’s peers and instructors that the author of the Declaration of Independence was a hypocritical slaveowner and to implicitly share in the opprobrium directed toward him by association. It is this wholesale ostracism of individuals as existing outside the ambit of democratic discourse as personae non grata that I fear is the inexorable end of civility politics.

Civility is weaponized when minority viewpoints putatively deleterious to “communal interests” are silenced to ensure that those espousing privileged points of view are not deprived of potential opportunities for speech for alleged want of a safe and respectful environment. Tragically, this is the antithesis of the “real engagement” which Chancellor Dirks rightly called for in a second email clarifying the first.

Where does this put the state of free speech at UC Berkeley? Has it become a “dead dogma?” Of all the events commemorating the legacy of the Free Speech Movement — both those organized by student groups and those directed by the administration — I saw the Free Speech Movement’s most promising fruit in the most counterintuitive of tributes.

BCR was not the only group out protesting on Friday. A sizable assortment of students sporting a mix of provocative and ribald signs on Sproul Plaza chanted, “Amend the First Amendment!” More precisely, they defiantly pronounced their desire to extirpate free speech in the United States. When I inquired as to their rationale, one protester claimed that the expression of diverse viewpoints is a major source of strife and that the world would be a better place if everyone agreed on everything or at least pretended they did.

Exercising my right of free speech, I civilly told him I was offended by his opinion. With a smile, I not-so-civilly proceeded to advise him that were he not to desist in voicing it immediately, I would be forced to punch him. At this point, he too smiled and told me I would be out of line in doing so. “Haven’t you heard of the First Amendment?”

Nihal Singh is a member of the Berkeley College Republicans and president of the ISI Burke Society.