Students reflect on the meaning of free speech

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Mary Zheng/File

The legacy of the Free Speech Movement is undeniable — inescapable, even.

Upper Sproul Plaza is notorious for the chaotic concentration of student groups advocating their causes. Yet 50 years ago, this was a liberty students did not have. Restrictions on the right to political advocacy were at the root of the FSM and inspired peaceful protests that in many ways led to a decade of unprecedented activism. But today, one of the first things students learn when they enter their first year at UC Berkeley is how to circumvent these crowds of organizers thrusting flyers into their hands.

It is difficult to appreciate free speech when you are being bombarded by it.

The overabundance of free speech is one of the main issues discussed in Freedom and the University, an English course that explores the history and legacy of the Free Speech Movement, as well as other student-led movements. The problem now, many students in the class contend, is ubiquity. Student Ramses Pringle claims that the main problem with free speech is that there is “too much” of it on campus. With so many issues on the table and so many competing opinions expressed, political advocacy on campus oftentimes feels like a shouting match with no unifying cause.

It is perhaps this ubiquity of free speech that desensitizes students to calls to activism. The administration has made an enormous effort to publicize FSM-related lectures and events; flyers and posters for Robert Coen’s public lecture Sept. 3 can still be found in most campus buildings. Nevertheless, student attendance at these events has been modest.

Roberta Guerrero, a student present at the Free Speech anniversary rally Oct. 1, said the ratio of FSM veterans to current students was nine to one. Student Madeleine Smith, who also attended the event, contested that the percentage ratio was more like “70 to 30,” though she acknowledged that most of the students in the crowd were organizers rather than students who had spontaneously joined while walking past Sproul.

Smith remarked that it was striking how many students ignored the rally despite Mario Savio’s iconic “bodies on the gears” speech blaring loudly through speakers. “Don’t you recognize this?” she wanted to ask. “Surely if there’s a moment to just stop, it would be now to listen to this recreation of this amazing moment.”

This lackluster student participation is reflective of general student apathy. This apathy may be generational: When Free Speech veterans were asked why they believed students were less likely to become involved in or be informed about student activism, they blamed technology. They criticized the manner in which “me generation” students rushed past Sproul with their earphones burrowed snugly in their ears and their thumbs continually swiping the screens of their phones.

English student Shannon McDonald, who is also enrolled in Freedom and the University, maintains that the situation is more complicated: Due to increased student debt, today’s students have “more to lose” by participating in demonstrations. Free speech activists in 1964 lived in a time when UC tuition was free, but students today graduate and find themselves drowning in debt.

Students largely agree that Free Speech is still an issue today, though the nature of the issue has changed. Efforts to suppress free speech are now couched in polite, euphemistic terms. When Occupy encampments were forcibly torn down in 2011, reasons of “public health and safety” were cited as justifications. Chancellor Dirks’ call for civility recently aroused controversy because it raised the question: Is free speech protected insofar as it is “civil”? Who is responsible for determining what constitutes “civil” free speech?

Though students are critical about what the Free Speech Movement achieved, they still have an appreciation for its legacy. Guerrero discloses that despite the annoyances of walking through Sproul, “It’s because of the FSM that anybody can now occupy that space and promote their causes, whether it be individuals yelling ‘come back to Jesus,’ fundraising activities for on-campus social and political clubs, movements such as ‘save public education,’ ‘stop police brutality,’ and so on.  I think this is a big part FSM’s legacy, but nobody really stops to think about it.”