Wealthy donors puppeteer campus administration’s decisions on free speech

Isabelle Doerschlag/Staff

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As many of us have heard and read, Chancellor Carol Christ has declared 2017 a “free speech year” at UC Berkeley. To ensure the importance of “diverse” viewpoints on campus, she announced a long-term program of events — most significantly confirming the return of Milo Yiannopoulos to campus for a “Free Speech Week” from Sept. 24-27 organized by campus publication the Berkeley Patriot. But what constitutes a diverse viewpoint, or even free speech, in the eyes of the administration? To answer this question, we must understand that UC Berkeley and the larger UC system will never be neutral institutions in this debate.

In her opening statement for the semester, entitled “Free speech is who we are,” Christ declared that the university “will invest the necessary resources” to ensure that the right to free speech on campus is defended. This was corroborated by Executive Vice Chancellor Paul Alivisatos’ email Sept. 13 before Ben Shapiro’s visit to campus, in which he reminded students of the “financial resources” as well as “increased and highly visible police presence” being deployed for the event. Then, just days after Alivisatos’ email, the Department of Anthropology was strong-armed into postponing its 2017 Distinguished Lecture on Sept. 25 after being informed by the library administration that they needed to move, reschedule or hire additional security for the lecture because of safety concerns surrounding Yiannopoulos’ return.

These actions of the university pose the obvious question — whose free speech is being defended here? Clearly, the administration is ready and willing to invest great resources to ensure that certain events run smoothly on campus. Christ’s statement implies that UC Berkeley is an academic institution committed to the free exploration of ideas, run in the interests of those who attend it and our larger society.

But in reality, UC Berkeley is run in the interests of the wealthy, as the university is seen as an ideal source to recruit the next generation of intellectuals and administrators of the corporate world. We see millions of dollars poured into the university in hopes of influencing the direction of academic research, deciding what classes are taught, and, inevitably, funneling students into professional fields like finance and law. Look no further than the UC Board of Regents and other UC officials, composed of representatives of those who wield true power in our society: finance capital, industry and even the Department of Homeland Security.

Therefore, the university’s definition of opposing viewpoints and a broad political spectrum in its so-called Free Speech Year will be defined by what the wealthy condone. So long as the wealthy have such a strong influence on who can speak in our universities and larger society, the political spectrum will be restricted and distorted. So distorted, in fact, that when this scope is stretched to include views and individuals that are abhorrent to the majority of the public, it becomes necessary to deploy militarized police to maintain a platform for those views and dissuade opposition, even if that dissent comes from the student body — the people who really should be deciding the values of the university.

The university’s current position on free speech is ironic when we delve deeper into the true nature of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s and the political forces that opposed it. Amid the context of both the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, the Free Speech Movement consisted of mass student mobilizations to gain the right to on-campus political activity opposed to segregation and the war. These acts of protest resulted in intense repression from the conservative administration and law enforcement, culminating in the largest mass arrest of students in U.S. history when close to 800 students were detained while occupying Sproul Hall in December of 1964. Predictably, the current UC Berkeley administration has discarded the true spirit of the Free Speech Movement to hide behind a commodified version, allowing them to sanitize the retelling of social movements for their own interests.

The question of whose free speech is being defended is truly a question of whose university this is. The definition of free speech is not abstract or objective, as Chancellor Christ would like us to believe; it is defined by those institutions which are in power. Until we realize this, we can never engage with this question effectively. Our task going forward will be not to lose ourselves in the hysteria of this dispute, but rather to focus on how we can empower ourselves with the consciousness and collective action to challenge the architects of this false debate.

Jolene Sweitzer is a UC Berkeley student and a member of Speak Out Now, a revolutionary socialist organization on campus.

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  • mostlyharmless19877

    If the university is so bad leave. No one is stopping you from leaving.
    You aren’t a very intelligent person.

  • We need to ban hate speech on this progressive campus

    • Rollie

      The campus belongs to those of all points of view, not just “progressives.” It simply doesn’t matter whether you think anyone’s speech is hateful or not. Under the Constitution and the law, it isn’t for you to ban any of it. And by the way, a confident argument never fears being challenged, it welcomes it. So order your thoughts, make your signs and write your own speeches, then confront those whom you oppose—without censoring them—and then defeat them with reason, if you can. And trust your fellow humans to form their own opinions without your claiming the right to decide what’s fit for them to see and hear.

    • lspanker

      How about instead if we just ban hypersensitive and intellectually challenged types who can’t handle an open exchange of ideas as mentally stable, mature adults?

  • Rollie

    “…it becomes necessary to deploy militarized police to maintain a platform for those views and dissuade opposition…”

    Nope. The police were deployed to dissuade broken windows and cracked heads.

  • ms. mischief

    “…even if that dissent comes from the student body — the people who really should be deciding the values of the university.”

    Any student so wise and knowledgable as to be able to determine this should leave in shame, for occupying a place needed by someone who is not so educated yet.

  • ms. mischief

    How — vacuous.

    You notice that it complains about some people’s speech being protected. It offers no examples of speech that isn’t.

  • Man with Axe

    You wrote: “…even if that dissent comes from the student body — the people who really should be deciding the values of the university.”

    Why should the students be the ones who run the university? What do they know about anything? They are there for a few years, and not for the purpose of running the university, but for the purpose of allowing the university to educate them and turn them into thoughtful adults. But you would prefer that the students spend their time agitating to change the university when they have no idea what the university is for, how it got to be the way that it is, and what it accomplishes for the world. They only know that the university does not fit their naïve view of how things should be.

    The idea that the wealthy have power to decide what goes on at the university is partly right. But the alternative you offer is that the commissars should decide, although you would probably call them “the people.” How that makes anything better I don’t know.

  • BerkeleyAlum

    ‘Whose free speech is being defended here?’ – EVERYONE’s, the voice from the oppressed, from the minority, from the righteous, from the delusional, from those who you disagree with and those that hurt your feelings. Forcible suppression of opposition IS fascism. And you can feel like a victim of fascism while being fascist yourself. It’s insane to have armed riot police for some libertarian’s speech. As Berkeley alum, I couldn’t be more ashamed by my school.

  • zzz

    Post modernist jibberish mixed with Marcuse opinions on free speech.

    This is what passes for educated opinion with the ridiculous left and what is considered common sense from the fascist right, same results.

    Your speech is so terrible that I will make up some long winded nonsensical rational…. you have institutional power so I want to control you.


    The state should be able to control speech because we don’t people corrupted by… what the author says is good 60’s speech.

  • s randall

    The Administration knew that that UC Berkeley would continue to be a lightning rod for conservatives as long as people like Milo couldn’t speak here. Are Milo and his like going to change any minds? I doubt it. So the only reason to speak here versus somewhere that no one cares about is just because we have visibility and we will create visibility for Milo and his supporters.

    I believe that wealthy donors don’t care specifically if Milo and his like get to speak at Berkeley. They just don’t want Berkeley to be dragged down by the controversy. Stonewalling is not going to diffuse the situation. The only way to diffuse the situation it to face it head on. Once people like Milo have had their chance to sully the Sproul Steps, we can hopefully move on.

    Do I think that Chancellor Crist is taking a chance with her approach? Sure. However, I think she has what it takes to get through this crisis. Make no mistake, it is a crisis. A Chinese friend once told me that the Chinese characters that represent crisis is a combination of two characters. The characters are “danger” and “opportunity.”

    • Fahargo

      I feel this analysis misjudges the problem Berkeley has. Chancellor Crist isn’t “taking a chance ” by letting in conservative speakers, she by law can not stop them. Colleges everywhere have passed hate speech codes. And every single one challenged in court lost. If she were to attempt to stop Ben,Milo, Ann Coulter from coming shed open the college up to lawsuits that would eat up college funds. It’s not some smart move to allow speakers that offend students to come. By current rules they don’t have a choice in the matter.

      • s randall

        Chancellor Christ is responsible for the health and well being of her students. You don’t think that hosting events with people like Milo is “taking a chance” in that context? I believe that responsibility for her students trumps the legal issues. (Yes I know. Bad pun.)

        • Fahargo

          The best leg the opposition has to stand on is Milo revealed the face,name of a trans student and insulted her on stage. It was a pointless vulgar attack on her character and appearance. But to claim he called his supporters to attack her, harass her has as much basis as claiming students are calling for antifa to attack people. Though some students openly endorse it.

          • Fahargo

            I don’t see much of a point of inviting Milo, he doesn’t really have much to say besides insulting his critics or making them look bad in debate. But there isn’t enough evidence to suggest he constitutes a threat to student safety.

          • s randall

            If Milo is scheduled to appear, Antifa will too. It’s purely a condition of his presence attracting people that hate him. That is apparently what draws Milo to Berkeley. He loves being the center of attention. He’s like the people that hop the fences along cliff edges, and then blames authorities when something bad happens.

            I don’t really care about Milo. I just don’t want anything bad to happen.

          • ms. mischief

            No, you want to use the excuse of “something bad” to blame the victim.

        • SecludedCompoundTTYS

          I don’t get why you guys care if he speaks. Just don’t go and don’t give him anymore attention. You aren’t helping anyone by protesting. Just allow people to say stupid stuff and be smart enough to know the difference and if you can’t dispute it with facts then you have a big problem. Every time I get in a debate with a progressive, all they do is shout names at me and never listen to my side or dismiss everything I say.

  • Fahargo

    Who’s free speech is being defended here? Everyone’s. You can not selectively decide when free speech applies. You want the student body to be able to decide over who gets to come to campus. What happens if an unusual amount of right leaning students attend the university thus becoming the majority to be able to decide over what speakers other students get to listen to. Suddenly LGBQ students can’t invite an inspirational speaker that shares their viewpoints. These same protections you wish to tear away protect minorities and oppressed groups.

    • zzz

      It isnt that it might happen, it has happened, the left are doing to unpopular opinion what the establishment and right wing did in the past to the left.