Event disruption is antithesis of campus free speech tradition

Irene Chen/Staff

We are students, administrators and faculty who have come together in defense of vital values.

On March 2 in Zellerbach Hall, during a student-organized event called “Front Row,” Berkeley witnessed a disturbing violation of one of our sacrosanct principles, namely the right to the open and free expression of ideas. A small student group that calls itself the Student Labor Committee, or SLC, decided to use physical violence to attempt to disrupt this event. Though quick and professional action by the police prevented worse from occurring, it was a sickening moment.

As a community, we unambiguously denounce such behavior. We cannot shrug off these acts as “the exuberance of youth,” “it’s Berkeley,” or “it’s freedom of speech.” It is none of

these. This is our community and our campus, our place of work and our place of study. Violence has no place here. No matter what cause the disrupters may believe they are serving, it cannot justify the attempt to destroy a fundamental function (arguably the fundamental function) of the university — namely creating an open space for the free exchange of ideas.

Created by UC Berkeley students for an audience of UC Berkeley students, Front Row represents a celebration of creativity in the Bay Area: a forum where leading cultural figures share insights into their creative process and talk about the defining inspiration they gained from the people, natural beauty, and sheer energy of the Bay Area.

Last week’s inaugural edition of Front Row was led by Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s drummer, who talked in a public forum with a group of brilliant and creative people, including electronic music and dance music artist Bassnectar; Salesforce.com founder and philanthropist Marc Benioff; bassist Les Claypool; actor, writer and Zen Buddhist priest Peter Coyote; and Lars Ulrich’s octogenarian father, Torben Ulrich. It was, by all accounts, a remarkable occasion, the type of only-at-UC-Berkeley event that defines our campus. Having heard that the SLC intended to disrupt the event, Lars Ulrich at the start of the evening offered the mic and the stage to anyone who wanted to address the audience. One person did so, and after that, the event went on as planned. Later in the evening, Benioff was Ulrich’s guest interviewee.

What happened next was not protest, it was violence dressed up as protest: Shortly into Ulrich’s and Benioff’s conversation, a mob of SLC-affiliated students started screaming and rushed the stage, with one managing to physically assault Benioff before being wrestled to the ground by police. It was a shocking, vicious spasm, which fortunately did not result in any injuries — after which the show went on (as it must).

Front Row is a program of Cal Performances, whose mission is “to produce and present performances of the highest artistic quality, enhanced by programs that explore compelling intersections of education and the performing arts.” Cal Performances values the voice of UC Berkeley students and the bedrock principles of free speech and peaceful protest.

This disruption, however, emblemized neither. More than just an attempt to exercise the heckler’s veto, this was a planned, violent, bullying act, with the express purpose of destroying a core activity of the campus.

All groups at UC Berkeley have the right to free expression, but none have the right to prevent others from doing likewise, least of all by using violence. The disruption last week was not an example of protest, it was not the exercise of free speech. We will not compromise our mission to create and disseminate artistic expression, illumination and the evolution of ideas — for it is only through these means that we can better our community and society in general. It is a moral obligation of anyone who cares about the free exchange of ideas, the cornerstone of any democratic society, to condemn such behavior in unambiguous terms. Be it on our performance stages or in our classrooms, we hold true to our principles of the vital exchange of ideas. Most of all, we unequivocally condemn this violence, and we hope everyone in our community will join us in doing so.

Nils Gilman is associate chancellor and a CalPerformances board member. Ben Hermalin is vice provost designate and a professor of economics and business. Robert Dudley is a member of the Academic Senate Committee on Demonstrations and Student Actions and a professor of integrative biology. Matías Tarnopolsky is the executive and artistic director of Cal Performances. Robert Powell is acting chair of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate. Nika Hoffman, Grace Lee, Elizabeth Lin, Chris Viñan and Parmida Ziaei are Front Row student curators.

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