Finding free speech in the wrong places

Graham Haught/Staff

Our campus maintains no shortage of pride in the Free Speech Movement — that period of glorified resistance that paired disgust for the social and political conditions of the time with unbridled optimism that students could be agents of change. At its best, the Free Speech Movement united students who shared strong convictions about the presence of injustice and exposed the hypocrisy and excesses of extant institutions. The unfortunate side of the Free Speech Movement, however, has gone largely unexplored.

More than four decades later, students have achieved few political victories. Higher education remains an easy target for lawmakers looking to slash funding with few political repercussions. In its quest to economize, the state has forced the university to choose among options that thrust the idea of education as a public good into question. Students today have minimal influence in shaping these decisions. The failure of activism to defend the interests of students hints at tacit acceptance of another message that many have taken from the Free Speech Movement: the suggestion that resistance for its own sake is inherently virtuous or productive.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to decouple the vehement daily calls for all flavors of reform on Sproul Plaza from the way students and education leaders are treated in Sacramento when they advocate for issues ranging from increased education funding to Cal Grant reform to added benefits for undocumented students. When student activists and campuswide elected officials adopt wide-ranging positions — often in the form of toothless symbolic resolutions — with little regard for the repercussions of their actions, Sacramento takes note. Berkeley is hardly judged by its Peace Corps volunteers, its alumni who teach for America or its civil servants who represent their nation with distinction in contentious spots around the globe. It is held to the words of its loudest, least accountable voices.

However accepting the echo chamber of Berkeley student politics may be for positions of extreme bravado — a vote of “no confidence” in a leader yet to take office among them — there is a need to consider the effects of such posturing on the treatment of the legislative priorities of students. Lobbying is a zero-sum game. Advocating the funding of student interests means arguing against the use of that money for other worthy causes — recently, health care, primary education and tax breaks have been among them. In that regard, the oft-uncooperative, antagonistic attitude toward the political system that has become a hallmark of activism at Berkeley is unproductive. We inhabit this campus for no more than a few years at once, but our actions maintain a lasting impact on its reputation. Furthermore, they shape the way future student advocates interpret their roles in the university. The Free Speech Movement has shown us this, too.

The most important message is this: Cooperation is not akin to cowardice. As long as the majority of student activists at Berkeley wear the idea of exclusion from the organs of political power as a badge of honor, the interests of students will suffer. The political decisions that have done the most to benefit UC students in the past two years — the DREAM Act, Cal Grant reform and the May 2013 budget revisions — were sculpted in Sacramento, not on Sproul.

Thankfully, some students at UC Berkeley have bucked this trend, working actively with legislators to forge solutions for pressing problems. The California Modernization and Economic Development Act, written by senior Jack Tibbetts, has gained the endorsement of several legislators in Sacramento for its emphasis on supporting education, the environment, and projects at the county level.

Whether or not CMED ultimately passes, it ought to serve as a blueprint for future action. This year, ASUC Senators Emily Truax and Caitlin Quinn, in collaboration with Sally Ching of Cal Lobby Corps, are organizing the first ASUC Senate Lobby Day, which will bring campuswide elected officials to Sacramento to communicate with members of the state Legislature. This is a commendable first step toward forging closer ties between UC Berkeley’s leaders and California’s lawmakers. If it ultimately tempers the traditionally tone-deaf approach toward policymaking that has characterized campus advocacy in the past, it will have done a great service.

Simply put, the decimation of student interests at the state level is unacceptable. A plurality of UC Regents, state senators and state Assembly members are UC, CSU and California Community Colleges alumni. During legislative visits, they regularly reminisce about the thriving public education system of past decades. UC students belong at the negotiating table whenever the state’s education system is at stake. The ASUC Senate could easily fund regular student-led lobbying visits aimed at advancing specific, achievable legislative goals. If our campus does not resist the label of being an institution that thumbs its nose at the prospect of cooperation and dialogue, however, it will be of no use in any case.

Tanay Kothari is a UC Berkeley senior who serves as the UC Student Association’s legislative chair.