By now you’ve probably seen a meme or two mocking the phrase, “The Free Speech Movement is dead.” As the president of the Berkeley College Republicans, let me own up to having written those words.
I penned that phrase with adrenaline pulsing through my veins. Only minutes before, I was followed by members of an “anti-fascist” group yelling expletives and threats my way; not long before that, I was in the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union as it was pelted by rocks and bricks, fireworks exploding right outside, the mob burning with hate as the campus burned. It’s fair to say my feelings during that fateful night of Feb. 1 were deadly serious.
Unlike so many of these people who might have done me harm or wished violence upon me, I have a sense of humor. I chuckle to myself when I see a meme ridiculously — and incorrectly — portraying the son of working-class California natives as some entitled brat preparing to sic lawyers on UC Berkeley using his father’s money. And unlike so many of these edgy teens and meme-posters, I understand that the events that transpired in the city of Berkeley over the past year did not revolve around how the Berkeley College Republicans’ comments and actions were perceived, nor did it revolve around the spilled blood between two radicalized sides.
The so-called “Battles of Berkeley” were fundamentally about free speech. The debate between the far-left and -right is not whether communism or fascism is the preferable system under which to live; rather, the debate is over what kind of speech is truly “free” and deserving of the full protection of the U.S. Constitution. Anyone who fails to recognize this as a conflict over constitutional freedoms rather than political ideology fails to understand what’s really happening here at Berkeley.
This idea was best illustrated in the immediate aftermath of Feb. 1. A few students doubled-down and attempted to justify the actions of the violent “black bloc.” One such person — one of my peers at UC Berkeley — left an indelible impression on me when, smiling, he informed me that he believed it should be permissible to physically assault someone whom he suspected of being a “Nazi” or an enabler of one. I couldn’t help but think he meant me. Our discussion did not debate the merits and demerits of any political system; it came down to free speech, plain and simple.
So many on the left have been advancing the specious argument that “hate speech” is an unprotected form of expression, and even more believe “hate speech” should be suppressed even if it merits legal protection. For some reason, these ideologues, partisans and pundits do not find this repressive position to be in tension with the legacy of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. What an astounding level of cognitive dissonance to believe that Mario Savio would not find the recent silencing of conservative speech on campus utterly alien to the movement he spearheaded.
If we are to claim ourselves to be a nation of ideals and of law, then we must adhere to the Constitution as the law of land, completely unabridged. We cannot sweep freedom of speech under the rug to post a meme about the Berkeley College Republicans or debate airy ideologies. Instead, we should prove that the Free Speech Movement is alive and well at UC Berkeley.
Let’s listen to each other rather than shout each other down. Perhaps we might just learn something worthwhile.