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Do not condone violence to suppress free speech

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FEBRUARY 10, 2017

In a letter to the UC Berkeley community a week before Milo Yiannopoulos’ visit, I made clear that both our campus’s iconic commitment to free speech, as well as definitive First Amendment rulings by the Supreme Court, meant that we were obliged to support the invitation by a legitimate student organization of the speaker to campus. Those who suggest there was a legal path to cancellation of the event are mistaken. I also made clear that we recognized the equal right of members of the community to assemble lawfully and to protest the speaker and his views, consistent with another iconic identity of this campus around our history of protest.

As a campus community, it befits us to debate issues about which we feel strongly, and to do so with respect for evidence, truth and for the power of argument. Indeed, it behooves us to have disagreements about issues small and large, and it is appropriate for our debates to make clear the urgency around matters related to the First Amendment, the significance of freedom of speech and expression, the law and the need as a community to be concerned about those individuals and groups who feel targeted and victimized by speech, whether on or off campus.

Recent op-ed submissions to this newspaper have, however, shifted the debate from one about freedom of speech and the First Amendment to naked endorsements of violent suppression of free speech in the name of supposedly higher values. While I feel strongly about my commitment to debate and disagreement, I am horrified by the call to embrace the use of violence to contest views with which we may disagree.  Even if one believes that Yiannopoulos’ speech might potentially have constituted some form of rhetorical violence, meeting this threat with actual physical violence is antithetical to what we, as a community dedicated to open inquiry, must and do stand for.  Physical violence has absolutely no place on our campus.

As a student of Indian history, I have long admired the heroic struggle mounted by Mohandas Gandhi against British imperial rule in India. Gandhi was famously known for his nonviolent approach to resistance, and for his influence on Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. What may be less-remembered today is that his deployment of “satyagraha” — roughly translated as the “force of truth” — was nonviolent, noncooperative, but never passive. It was a form of protest that was active, requiring immense courage of its adherents at the same time it required the full acknowledgement of the rule of law. Gandhi mounted protests to laws he felt were unjust and immoral, but submitted to the rule of law because, in the end, he believed that the most cherished principles of law either did, or could be made to, align with justice. When laws were unjust, he believed that nonviolent civil disobedience could call attention to this discrepancy, shining a bright light on ideas of justice that would accord with widely shared ideals rather than narrow imperial interests. By exemplifying these ideals in his actions, he believed the truth would eventually win. By practicing nonviolence, he could call attention to the violence of the oppressor. And on both counts history proved him right.

In our present political moment, we need more than ever to cleave to the laws that protect our fundamental rights. The First Amendment is unequivocal in its almost unfettered protection of speech with which many might disagree, but which is the same protection that allows speech that others wish to hear.  We cannot support free speech selectively, even as we must understand that the commitment to justice, to free inquiry, to truth, is the very foundation of what we hold dear as the University of California. And we should heed the caution of leaders who have persevered in the face of calls for violence, remembering Gandhi’s famous phrase: “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” The University of California was founded with the motto “Fiat Lux,” let there be light. Now more than ever, let us make this light shine bright.

Nicholas Dirks is the the Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.

FEBRUARY 10, 2017