Students from Berkeley College Republicans and Cal Berkeley Democrats found common ground in defending free speech at an on-campus debate Wednesday night, but they clashed on issues regarding how to practice it.
Hosted by the Berkeley Political Review, or BPR, a nonpartisan student publication, the debate probed news events related to free speech, ranging from the pushback against Bill Maher’s winter commencement address in 2014 to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. Debaters also discussed the violent demonstration that occurred last month on the night of a canceled talk by controversial right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, whom BCR had invited to campus.
“The whole discourse around the nation has been leading up to this whole grand debate about free speech,” said BPR business manager Yash Sanghrajka, who served as moderator.
The debaters spoke in front of about 80 students at the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union. Campus freshman David Olin debated on behalf of Cal Dems and BCR sent freshman Rudra Reddy, who also works as a columnist for The Daily Californian.
Both advocated for stringent speech protections, agreeing, for example, that the government should not ban the wearing of religious garments. They also both denounced the use of violence in demonstrations.
“I am not and I don’t think anyone in Cal Dems (is), and I don’t think most Berkeley students are okay with the way it was shut down,” Olin said during the debate, referencing the canceled Yiannopoulos event. “That was the result of a fringe and frankly ridiculous group of people who acted violently.”
But Olin called Yiannopoulos’ rhetoric unconstructive, criticizing BCR’s decision to give him a platform.
“If you think that Milo has nothing positive to contribute to the discussion, why is it that his coming to UC Berkeley stirs up the kind of visceral emotion we saw that night?” Reddy said in response to Olin.
Reddy expressed concern about the state of free speech on campus, noting that professors have criticized him for speaking too dominatingly in class. He and Olin both condemned the recent destruction of a BCR sign.
“I am disheartened by what I see,” Reddy said during the debate.
Olin acknowledged the challenges faced by conservatives on a liberal campus but said he similarly has been told to take up less “airtime” in class for the sake of making discussion more inclusive.
Olin and Reddy disagreed on policies related to political spending, protest tactics and redistricting. Olin criticized Republican proposals to make protesters who block highways face harsher penalties, while Reddy said it’s important to keep public roads clear of disruption. The two also sparred over their opposing views on whether political spending is protected speech.
Both speakers expressed desire for less divisive discourse. Freshman Isabella Chow, a BPR member, said afterward that the tone of the debate was not contentious.
“It was more like a discussion,” she said.