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Change the discourse on free speech

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SEPTEMBER 21, 2012

Last year, I was privileged to serve the student body as its external affairs vice president and as part of my duties, represent UC Berkeley as a voting board member of the University of California Student Association.

I have great respect for the UCSA but am deeply saddened by the resolution it passed both condemning California Assembly House Resolution 35 —which aims to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitism — and endorsing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

HR 35 is fundamentally about free speech on campuses. As EAVP, I was confronted by several instances of free speech and admittedly, I wrestled with my understanding of its limits. One of my biggest regrets was publicly stating that the Berkeley College Republicans had the right to conduct their now infamous “Increase Diversity” bake sale even while denouncing their tactics, yet later opining that the Black Student Union could not host Minister Louis Farrakhan on campus, who has a history of making racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic comments.

My intention was to protect students and our delicate campus climate, but I now realize that my grappling of what free speech means is the whole point. It is supposed to challenge us, especially in a university setting where ideas are everything — let alone at UC Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. We are old enough to hear all views, no matter how outlandish or how much they personally sting.

Case in point. Last year while speaking about public higher education — not Israel — at the November Day of Action rally, a banner that read, “Occupy Cal, not Palestine” was intentionally displayed behind me and no one else. I was hurt but if anything, it affirmed that I stand for something. Free speech can be abusive and often it crosses the line to hate speech, but it’s not our place to define what that line is.

I agree that not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but I take strong objection to the way in which the UCSA took its position. By framing a statement of support for free speech via a resolution about Israel and anti-Semitism, they opportunistically and unnecessarily injected a divisive discourse.

After castigating HR 35 — which many in my community fairly believe is an accurate representation of campus climate issues — the board inserted language endorsing BDS and calling for “all institutions of higher learning” to pursue divestment. By doing so, the UCSA shifted from endorsing free speech for all to explicitly encouraging a particular protest movement that has a history of tearing campuses apart. The UCSA should represent every UC student, not only those with a particular set of views. Chock it out to the fact that this was its first meeting, but this board failed to recognize its power. The UC system is respected around the world and the claim that all UC students endorse BDS could have national and even international repercussions.

The Jewish community was utterly blindsided and excluded from the conversation. Key backers of BDS and Students for Justice in Palestine were not. Somehow these individuals not only knew to be at the meeting but had a presentation prepared for the board. I must say I’m quite impressed by their foresight.

Moreover, the process was deeply flawed. According to a Daily Californian article, the UC San Diego external affairs vice president said board members began working on this issue when they convened in August. Yet to my knowledge, not one board member contacted the Jewish community over the past month.
What amounted to three draining senate meetings, thousands of letters and international media attention three years ago during our campus’s divestment debate, happened in one fell swoop at the UCSA board meeting. What had failed to pass on the campus level, even with the hysteria it created, has now passed on a systemwide level. This time, however, I didn’t even know it was happening.

A board that had a month to inform the Jewish community about this bill and didn’t is not one that represents all UC students, nor is a board that allowed certain individuals to organize a premeditated legislative coup d’etat intentionally excluding large constituencies from systemwide conversations. How ironic that an attempt to protect free speech prohibited the free speech of others.

I served on the UCSA board for a year in a leadership capacity, made friends of a lifetime and took part in achieving major successes for students. The UCSA has the capacity to advance its goal of achieving an accessible and affordable public education for all California students, but at least this time around, this board did not represent me.

Divestment, Farrakhan, HR 35 — this has been a thread of my college career. The conflict is not just political. It has enormous religious and moral implications. We need to change the discourse, or we will be perpetually trapped in a debate that only divides.

I propose holding a systemwide conference in Berkeley during the spring, aimed at identifying ways to build a civil society on campus. Let’s have frank conversations about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, free speech and hate crime protections, and let’s do it in a way where all voices are heard. Let’s demonstrate that long-standing conflicts can unite, rather than divide. For this to work, we all need to get behind it. Can I count you in?

Joey Freeman was the ASUC external affairs vice president and UCSA finance officer from 2011-2012. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected]

SEPTEMBER 21, 2012