UC Berkeley Commission on Free Speech invites campus members to reflect at first public hearing

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Karen Chow/Staff

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The Commission on Free Speech, a task force created by Chancellor Carol Christ to solicit feedback from campus members on free-speech-related occurrences, got off to a rocky start at its first public hearing Friday.

The commission, which was created in the aftermath of the canceled “Free Speech Week,” comprises, in equal parts, students, faculty and staff. Christ announced her plans to form a commission in October to address controversies that free speech issues have created on campus.

It quickly became evident, however, that a meeting set for 10:30 a.m. on a Friday may not have as much participation as it expected. After a few moments of silence from attendees, campus dean of students Joseph Greenwell offered to speak to get the ball rolling.

Greenwell said that after the free speech events of last semester, he worked with various campus professionals who support students, including the Division of Equity & Inclusion, and sought to rectify the divide some felt about performing their roles when they themselves felt that campus events were contradicting their beliefs.

“If they don’t understand why (these events were taking place), how can they support students?” Greenwell asked.

The Commission on Free Speech is chaired by Prudence Carter, dean of the Graduate School of Education, and philosophy professor Jay Wallace. Both chairs read public comment submissions from students and campus members.

Blake Simons, assistant director of the African American Student Development Center, said he had never seen anything like Free Speech Week, even though he had been in Berkeley during the Black Lives Matter movement.

Simons shared his frustrations as both a staff member and Black person native to the Bay Area and remarked on the added police presence in September.

“A lot of my students did not feel safe to be on campus,” Simons said to the commission. “Policing is not inherently safety.”

Simons added that the events created emotional trauma for the students he works with and that there weren’t enough resources in place to make up for the closing of safe spaces such as the César E. Chávez Student Center.

Elisa Huerta, director of the campus Multicultural Community Center, said even though the planned free speech events were canceled, the environment they created did not go away. She added that she hopes the commission is able to bridge gaps in communication to create preventive models that are centered around harm reduction and de-escalation.

Berkeley resident Guy Taiho Decker, a right-wing protester who participated in the protests at Revolution Books in October, livestreamed the event and repeatedly interrupted other speakers.

“You guys are disgusting. You can’t rule by feelings,” Decker said during public comment. “We need more speech, not less speech.”

Other speakers included campus freshman Jonah Gercke, a student leader at the campus Restorative Justice Center, and Elizabeth Wilmerding, a campus undergraduate prevention program manager at the PATH to Care Center.

Christ was present for a half-hour during the part of the commission that was reserved for staff members working near Sproul Plaza.

Ani Vahradyan is the university news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anivahrad.