UC Berkeley must defend free speech, promote dialogue

Isabella Schreiber/Staff

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At the climax of the Free Speech Movement 53 years ago, UC Berkeley faculty overwhelmingly resolved that “the content of speech or advocacy should not be restricted by the university” and that “the time, place, and manner of conducting political activity on the campus shall be subject to reasonable regulation to prevent interference with the normal functions of the university.” It was a historic resolution that recognized freedom of expression as an essential operating principle of UC Berkeley. The faculty also emphatically rejected an amendment to this resolution that would only support freedom of speech “provided that it is directed to no immediate act of force or violence.” The prevailing arguments against such a qualified endorsement were the semantic vagueness of terms such as “force” and “violence,” which could leave ample room for differing interpretations, as well as the primacy of the Supreme Court’s significantly narrower interpretation of what constitutes unlawful speech.

While the social conflicts underlying the present crisis have changed since the Free Speech Movement, the scope of the debate on free speech has not. The question of whether “hate speech,” however defined, is free speech, has been answered unequivocally and in the affirmative by our faculty of that era, who insisted that the content of speech not be regulated. To date, we have heard no convincing arguments in favor of repealing or amending this historic resolution.

It is our view that the great college should not engage in suppressing “hate speech,” however vile, but instead in tirelessly educating its students in the values of an open and enlightened society free of uncritical zeal, intolerance, and ideological obsessions that breed hate. In this regard, we applaud Chancellor Carol Christ for taking a principled position in support of free speech on campus and living up to this position with her actions. This is by no means the path of least political resistance or lowest fiscal impact. But it is the only path that respects the freedom of all our students to express their political views through their choice of speakers and topics. To us, any alternative is simply unimaginable.

As our campus prepares for a potentially challenging week of incendiary speeches, demonstrations, and counter-demonstrations, we call on all of our constituencies to work collectively and diligently toward lowering the temperature of our narratives and discouraging violence or acts that may provoke violence. In the realm of our campus, no cause, however noble, should be thought of as justifying the blind violence witnessed during recent political events both on and off campus.

In the longer term, our campus needs to reflect on its role as a facilitator of dialogue on  major issues confronting our nation. Too often, freedom of speech in our intensely polarized environment merely affords different groups the opportunity to talk past each other or, even worse, hatefully against each other. This should not be what we strive for. Rather, we need to refocus our creative energies on a deliberate and intellectually honest effort to re-engage in academic discourse across political lines. One of our faculty colleagues recently brought up the extraordinary 1965 debate on race featuring James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr., and rightfully wondered if our campus could host such an event today. The inflammatory rhetoric emanating from both ends of the political spectrum leaves little room for optimism. But our great campus and all of us deserve better.

Panos Papadopoulos and Robert Powell are former chairs of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate.