Free speech lawsuit against UC Berkeley disregards safety concerns of students

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Beverly Pan/Staff

So the free speech debate has deepened further. The U.S. Department of Justice, or DOJ, has filed a Statement of Interest in the lawsuit by Young America’s Foundation, or YAF, and Berkeley College Republicans, or BCR, against UC Berkeley. Now, I know that’s a lot of acronyms, but bear with me.

The lawsuit challenges the campus’s “discriminatory” management of campus visits by conservative speakers last April. Both YAF and BCR accuse the campus of violating their constitutional right to exercise free speech by charging extreme security fees and implementing a series of logistical hurdles for their bid to host Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter and other high-profile speakers. This, they claim, is a violation of the 1st Amendment.

Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to agree. The DOJ stated that it would “not stand by idly while public universities violate students’ constitutional rights”; Sessions has voiced support for the plaintiffs and struck a heavy blow to the campus.

So is Berkeley guilty?

The argument revolves around two competing sides of the free speech debate: freedom of speech and freedom from speech. While these are distinctly different entities, they are not mutually exclusive. We can all agree that an individual or group has the right to vocalize their opinion; when this begins to inflict physical or psychological harm on another, however, limitations must be drawn.

Indeed, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference,” is followed by the crucial amendment, “subject to certain restrictions for respect of the rights or reputation of others”.

This lawsuit must identify the point at which freedom from Shapiro’s rhetoric takes precedence over his freedom to espouse it in public. In initiating this litigation, YAF, BCR and now Sessions are asserting that Shapiro and Coulter’s liberty to speak did not violate personal freedoms on the UC Berkeley campus — it was simply an attempt to counter a perceived repression of right-wing conversation at Berkeley. They contend the campus is simply stifling alternative political views in an attempt to pamper its students.

Now, I will admit to finding myself somewhat bemused by the political correctness of the “safe spaces” debate on campus. One class in which the instructor attempted to explain plant reproductive cycles without using gender pronouns left me mystified. But Shapiro and Coulter’s freedom to address the campus cannot be equated to a case of unintentional offense in the classroom.

In my opinion, Shapiro’s objective was never to hold open political dialogue or construct engaging debate. Shapiro and others appear to be invited by BCR to incite hostility and provoke violence. When inviting these speakers, they were well aware of the potential harm this could precipitate.

This case is not simply about coddling the “fragile egos” of us snowflakes, as Sessions so eloquently put it. The campus did not charge the $10,000 security fee for its personal amusement; the violence these speakers have attracted in the past posed clear danger for many individuals, particularly minorities, on this campus. UC Berkeley does a poor enough job admitting these groups — it should be damn sure to protect those it has enrolled.

By granting Shapiro and Coulter unrestricted access to Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley would have been complicit in any resulting violence. Indeed, it could have found itself liable for failing to safeguard students, exposing itself to even more litigation. Furthermore, the campus’s obligation extends beyond the “Berkeley bubble” to its staff and the wider city of Berkeley, many of whom have found themselves the target of people such as Coulter.

Throwing his weight behind the lawsuit, Sessions claims to be championing free speech. However, it is yet another attempt to undermine institutions such as UC Berkeley that repeatedly and publicly criticize President Donald Trump’s administration. Contrary to its mission statement of “ensuring public safety,” the DOJ seems to sponsor violence. If the DOJ cannot be depended upon to protect public safety, who can?

Yet we must recognize the active role that organizations such as YAF and BCR play in stimulating much-needed diversity in campus politics. Political heterogeneity should be celebrated, not repressed.

By denying these groups a platform to articulate their sentiments, we not only suppress debate, but we also risk lending legitimacy to Sessions’ claim that we are unable to contend with challenging political views. Instead the answer is a more comprehensive conversation between a spectrum of ideologies.

But rather than create rigorous discussion, last year’s events, and now this lawsuit, have polarized our campus. If YAF and indeed Berkeley seeks to construct genuine free speech, it should place speakers from the right and left together in open panel discussions, facilitating a constructive debate over our divergent politics. Instead of throwing its weight behind the lawsuit, the Trump Administration could deploy its resources in constructing such open debate between the campus and its Republican student groups.

This lawsuit has been dismissed once before. But whether new support from the DOJ will alter this, we have yet to find out. Whatever the outcome, UC Berkeley and other higher education institutions across the nation must reconsider how politics is regulated on campus. If universities are to protect students and staff from harmful speech without inviting further legal challenges, we cannot afford a repeat of UC Berkeley’s $4 million mismanagement.

We must cement a more coherent and explicit ontology of “free speech.” It is failure to clearly delineate the parameters of freedom of and freedom from speech, and the resulting irresolute way the campus dealt with last year’s events, that fueled clashes and laid the foundations for this lawsuit. However, any discussion must be extended beyond the campus faculty and its students.

Isobel Duxfield is a junior exchange student at UC Berkeley majoring in geography.

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  • AG12323

    Should we ban Anti-Trump hate speech?!

  • Man with Axe

    The central fallacy of the article is that there is no “right to be free from speech.” Speech that causes psychological harm? That’s just too bad. Don’t listen to it. Speech that causes physical harm? If the speaker is going to INCITE violence that can be prevented. But if he’s going to PROVOKE violence from an antagonistic audience the speech cannot be prevented, and the speaker must be protected. Otherwise you get a heckler’s veto. This is what the author seems to think is an appropriate response to Ben Shapiro. Shut him down because the audience of antifa thugs might be violent.

    The notion that the proper way for free speech to manifest itself is that conservative speakers must only be allowed to present their views in “balanced panel discussions” or some such. Why? Can’t you listen to a speaker by himself and make your own judgment? Someone wants to express himself and not have a dialogue? Isn’t that what people do all the time, such as when they write a book? Do you insist that every book include chapters from the author’s opponents?

  • Freedom Guy

    The author should stick to geography. The founding fathers understood something basic: inoffensive speech needs no protection; only offensive speech requires it. The First Amendment is our only safeguard against totalitarians and fascists who wish to silence the ideas they hate. “[I]f there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his dissent in U.S. v. Schwimmer, 279 U.S. 644, 654–55 (1929).

  • Killer Marmot

    Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference,” is followed by the crucial amendment, “subject to certain restrictions for respect of the rights or reputation of others”.

    Yes, everyone agrees that free speech has limitations. As an example, you may not defame people, or lie in court, or encourage people to run out and break the law. But “not upsetting others” is not one of these limits, nor can it be in a liberal democracy.

  • Killer Marmot

    We must cement a more coherent and explicit ontology of “free speech.”

    The courts have already done that. You just don’t like their answer.

    In particular, they do not recognize “freedom from speech.”

  • Nunya Beeswax

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has no jurisdiction in the US. Quoting it is like quoting the Bible or the Declaration of Independence; foundational documents, perhaps inspiring or inspired, but with no legal force and hence irrelevant to the issue.

    You can call the costs incurred by BCR’s pranking a “$4 million mismanagement,” but if something had really gone down during Free Speech Week you’d have been glad the cops were there. The real question is whether the BCR and its associated groups will manage to get away with fiscal arson, forcing the UC to pay for an event that was never going to happen anyway.

  • lspanker

    Shapiro and others appear to be invited by BCR to incite hostility and provoke violence.

    Funny how it’s never considered “inciting hostility” and “provoking violence” when liberals make outrageous accusations and libelous statements about conservatives, Republicans, Trump supporters, white males, etc. The selective indignation speaks volumes about the narcissism, immaturity and intolerance of the progressive left.

    • Jorge Carolinos

      From the article you can tell the author views this all as a one way street to her advantage.

      The left self identify as intellectual so we all must come to them, we must meet them 3/4 of the way just for the debate to work.

  • Killer Marmot

    Somehow the idea took root that higher education is a giant therapy session for the emotionally traumatized.

    In fact it is — or should be — the opposite. The purpose of a university is to disrupt your views, to challenge your assumptions, to knock you off of your comfortable perch. You are here to learn to deal with disturbing ideas by analyzing and debating them, not by clapping your hands over your ears and insisting they go away.

    • Jorge Carolinos

      I never saw in this context it but I remember people I knew when I was college age talking about watching Salo in class, classes that didn’t have much to do with the movie, the teachers it seems just wanted to freak out the squares, now the teachers are there to baby sit adult babies.

      Never need to see that movie again.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sal%C3%B2,_or_the_120_Days_of_Sodom

      I wonder if any professor is showing classes this anymore?

  • Killer Marmot

    The argument revolves around two competing sides of the free speech debate: freedom of speech and freedom from speech. While these are distinctly different entities, they are not mutually exclusive. We can all agree that an individual or group has the right to vocalize their opinion; when this begins to inflict physical or psychological harm on another, however, limitations must be drawn.

    I find this article emotionally upsetting, and therefore it must be withdrawn.

    I’m kidding, of course. The idea that one must not be allowed to say something that is disturbing to someone else is entirely unworkable, and has no currency among scholars of human rights.

    In fact, disturbing speech is precisely what the first amendment is designed to protect, for speech that upsets no one needs no protection.

    Sorry, Duxfield, but your demands to be psychologically coddled are hereby rejected. In its stead, I recommend you grow up.

  • LordGreyFalcon

    Psychological harm? No! If the expression of ideas in the forum of speech is too distressing, then don’t attend the forum. If the idea that someone else is hearing ideas that you disagree with is too distressing and causing you some sort of harm, then you may have a bigger issues in life. We cannot, should not, and ultimately will not stop the DISCUSSION of any idea. If someone wants to discuss why cereal box mascots paint a false picture of the Irish, why we should allow the genocide of a given race, or the benefits of open borders, then we should be able to discuss it. By doing so, we can expose and ultimately refute bad ideas and promote better ideas.

    • That Guy

      Psychological harm comes from the realization that someone somewhere does not agree with you. This can be devastating. Look at the Buddha, he realized that there was suffering in the world and had to start a new religion to cope.

  • SMH

    .
    I said last year from the very start that the — incompetent — lawsuit(s) weren’t going anywhere — which I could tell right from the very first page (in the 2nd or 3rd paragraph if I recall correctly) — except to put Berkeley College Republican (and the similar right-wing student groups’) money into the lawyer’s pocket (maybe finance a nice summer luxury trip to Europe and with plenty of extra money left over) and get her some free TV publicity in the Bay Area.

    I was *LLLAUGHING* about them — the *LAUGHABLE* lawsuits *&* the right-wing student plaintiffs — in all *CAPS* & asterisks — and I’ve been right all along — and I don’t even have any legal education (just common sense analysis of the lawsuit).

    Sessions can do whatever he wants, and he can huff & puff ’til he blowwws his brains out (please!!)…: the lawsuit(s) still aren’t going anywhere.

    Ha-ha-ha…

    Chancellor Carol Christ was playyyed into spending MILLIONS OF DOLLARS (that thus couldn’t go to programs for socio-educational enlightenment/development) to instead fund some of the country’s most notorious white right-wing racists &/or misogynists — &/or pro-pedophile (Milo) — and, most of all, SHEER *PROVOCATEURS’* — ALT-RIGHT *CIRCUS* and **PUBLICITY STUNTS**.

    .