The extraordinary efforts that Chancellor Carol Christ has undertaken to declare UC Berkeley’s 2017-2018 academic year as one of free speech is an understandable strategy aiming to rejuvenate our campus’s public image as a prestigious, inclusive institution following the controversial shut down of Milo Yiannopoulos. Her decision to prioritize freedom of speech also seeks to foster and encourage civil discourse amongst varying political ideologies on a campus that proudly identifies itself as the proverbial womb of the 1964 Free Speech Movement.
The Free Speech Movement originated out of students’ demands for a platform to discuss and resist social inequalities during a time in which the civil rights of communities of color were considered a matter of opinion and a topic for political debate. Students of the original Free Speech Movement stood against toxic ideology, discrimination and hatred, as opposed to fighting for the right to rhetorically dehumanize others.
Now, many privileged communities strategically co-opt the concept of free speech to legitimize their open hatred of historically subordinated populations and to strategically disguise their prejudiced, dehumanizing ideologies as benign political opinion. Arguably, the greatest perversion of the Free Speech Movement lies in the fact that though it initially sought to legitimize the oppressed, it is now being appropriated to legitimize oppression.
In fact the upcoming guest speaker, Ben Shapiro, who is set on exploiting our campus as a platform for discriminatory rhetoric, asked the following at a Young America’s Foundation conference, “Why are we humoring a mass delusion?” He then continued to confidently proclaim that “transgenderism” is a “delusion,” “barbaric” and “utter tripe”. Likewise, he utilized high suicide rates as empirical, scientific evidence that the transgender community is suffering from a serious “mental illness.”
Shapiro’s unapologetic claims regarding the entire transgender community cannot be swept aside as mere opinion or issues up for candid political debate. These claims incite hatred and present an immediate threat to the wellbeing and safety of students. We must not allow individuals that pervert and appropriate the concept of free speech as a tool of legitimizing discrimination to use our campus for media attention at the expense of student health and safety.
Where do we draw the line?
UC Berkeley’s Principles of Community strives “to uphold a just community in which discrimination and hate are not tolerated.” I respectfully request that the administrative faculty members to ask themselves whether their actions demonstrate a zero-tolerance policy for hate on campus as their Principles of Community claim — or rather, a flexible threshold for discrimination and hate that waxes and wanes under public scrutiny and pressure.
The administration is prioritizing the rejuvenation of our institution’s public image and branding over the immediate mental and physical health of students.
The administration, commendably, has voiced a commitment to providing additional counseling, social support, and resources to affected students. But this means the administration recognizes that hosting this individual’s toxic ideology poses an imminent danger to students.
Likewise, the administration’s extensive, notable expenditures for event security alludes to an awareness of the immediate physical threat students are subjected to as a consequence of this event. Extensive police presence exacerbates the mental health, anxiety, fear and physical safety of undocumented students still grappling with the repeal of DACA. I respectfully urge campus administrators to consider how their actions might place them in potential liability of negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligence in duty of care, as well as permitting preventable injury.
Admittedly, this op-ed is intentionally limited to a careful scrutiny of Ben Shapiro. However, it also aims to stimulate critical dialogue regarding other invited guest speakers such as Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon, and how their discriminatory and hateful statements violate the Principles of Community. Should 2017-2018 be the year of free speech for openly discriminatory individuals like Ben Shapiro, as opposed to a year of compassion for students that struggle, both historically and presently, to be at this campus and to exist?
In the pursuit of respectful, critical dialogue across varying, polarized political ideologies, we must be rigorous in assuring that the individuals we invite on campus are committed to constructive discourse, are not in violation of our Principles of Community, and do not publicly discriminate and dehumanize subordinated populations. Unless we make a critical, comprehensive, and culturally sensitive effort to ensure that all Principles of Community are upheld amongst individuals that attend and are invited to speak on our campus, then discourse across the political spectrum will not be unifying, safe, constructive, or aligned with campus values.
In the context of an executive administration that uses force to subordinate and deny civil rights to communities of color, members of Muslim faith, immigrants, transgender populations, DACA recipients and many others, I respectfully urge the campus administration to comprehensively uphold and protect our Principles of Community in UC Berkeley and to defend the safe space that this institution proclaims itself to be.
Camila Elizabet Aguirre Aguilar is a UC Berkeley student.