Farrakhan and UC Berkeley’s free speech fallacy

The Devil's Advocate

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It’s surprising that UC Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement, is unable to handle free speech. I’m referring to, most recently, the widespread hysteria over the Black Student Union’s decision to host the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan at UC Berkeley.

Farrakhan, one of six speakers scheduled to address the 2012 Afrikan Black Coalition conference at UC Berkeley this weekend, has a history of making homophobic, anti-Semitic and racist comments. Though he has espoused bigotry, he shouldn’t be caricatured as a degenerate ideologue: Farrakhan is a transformative figure in the black community who organized and led the Million Man March on Washington in 1995, and has worked to rehabilitate ex-convicts.

But I don’t want to dissect Farrakhan’s complicated character. I want to address the campus’ reaction to Farrakhan’s invitation to speak, which has been emphatically at odds with UC Berkeley’s legacy of free speech.

Tikvah, a Jewish student group, first implied that Farrakhan should be forbidden from addressing the Afrikan Black Coalition in a shrill blog post on Monday. Because “Farrakhan’s visit directly attacks Jewish students on this campus,” his visit is “unacceptable” and “cannot be tolerated,” according to Tikvah’s post. The group urges readers to contact the dean of students and the ASUC to tell them “that this event is unacceptable.” This response conflicts not only with UC Berkeley’s tradition of ensuring the existence of an open marketplace of ideas (even offensive ones), but with Tikvah’s own interests: If Tikvah sets a precedent of recommending the suppression of offensive speakers, Tikvah’s freedom to invite whichever speakers it pleases will be jeopardized in the future.

Unfortunately, student government leaders perpetuated Tikvah’s attack on free speech. In a strained op-ed printed in The Daily Californian on Tuesday, four of five ASUC executives went to great lengths to try and reconcile the principles of free speech with their suggestion that it is “unacceptable” for Farrakhan to speak on campus. They try to distinguish Farrakhan from other “controversial speakers,” who “should, of course, be allowed at UC Berkeley” by claiming that “communities will be cut off from this event by feeling uncomfortable and intimidated by his words.” The authors seem to miss the point of protecting free speech. Speech that does not make people feel uncomfortable is not in need of protection.

But perhaps the op-ed’s most extraordinary assertion is that “there is a hard line between upholding free speech and instigating divisiveness.” Surely the authors would not suggest that speech should be proscribed because it is “divisive.” The executives go on to appeal to “the delicate campus climate” in order to justify their calls for censorship. But the campus climate is best served by a free and open exchange of ideas — where “good” speech, not censorship, is the bulwark against offensive speech.

This isn’t the first time the campus has floated around the idea of banning unpopular speech. In September 2011, when news got out that the Berkeley College Republicans were planning a bake sale to protest affirmative action, the ASUC Senate called an emergency meeting amid calls for the ASUC to revoke funding for the group. Before the meeting, ASUC officials, including President Vishalli Loomba, warned that the Berkeley College Republicans’ ASUC funding was in jeopardy. The ASUC then passed a resolution condemning the bake sale and explicitly reiterating the ASUC’s ability to defund the College Republicans. No formal action was ultimately taken against the College Republicans, just as the campus is unlikely to actually prevent Farrakhan from speaking on campus. But it’s disturbing that in both cases censorship and coercion were widely seen as legitimate responses to offensive speech.

The notion that UC Berkeley students are so delicate that we must be shielded from uncomfortable speech is patronizing and insulting. Supressing Farrakhan is undoubtedly more dangerous than anything he could possibly say.

Clarification(s):
A previous version of this post implied that Tikvah called for students to contact the ASUC and the dean of students to urge them to prevent Farrakhan from speaking. In fact, Tikvah called for students to contact the dean of students and the ASUC to tell them “that this event is unacceptable.”