‘Engage the issue’: UC Berkeley marks 53rd anniversary of Free Speech Movement in all-day event

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Campus administrators, staff and students joined together Thursday to reevaluate the role of free speech online and on campus, marking 53 years since UC Berkeley’s 1964 Free Speech Movement took place.

At the “Reply All: Free Speech in the Age of Social Media” event in Sutardja Dai Hall, the main topic was the intersection of media and speech and how social media platforms have transformed free speech, particularly at UC Berkeley. Speakers, including Chancellor Carol Christ and UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy professor Robert Reich, offered their critiques of social media’s role in free speech as well as possible solutions.

Campus organizations BridgeUSA, Berkeley Center for New Media and the Graduate Assembly hosted the event, which opened with remarks from Christ and a speech from Reich, followed by various panels and open discussions. Members of the original Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in 1964 also came to speak.

BridgeUSA external affairs vice president Manu Meel said the event was meant to kickstart the conversation on free speech and media. In order to have democratic deliberation, Meel said, all sides are needed for discussion. To Meel, free speech is not the end of the ideological gap, but a means to achieve a further goal.

“This event is meant to demonstrate that the campus, the chancellor and the student body can have this dialogue in a productive manner,” Meel said. “I would say the purpose is to alleviate tensions of free speech and demonstrate the importance of debate, discussion and dialogue, … figuring out different solutions. … People are so bitterly divided on issues.”

In his speech, Reich addressed some of the current free speech problems he saw online, including users’ fear of retribution for expressing controversial opinions as well as using online communities to “crowdsource violence.” Reich also said he believed the power of “big money” dominated what people saw on social media.

The solutions to these problems, Reich said, include reaching out to those with dissenting opinions on social media, continuing to invest in protecting events such as the now-canceled “Free Speech Week” and creating a right-to-privatize-information act in order to prevent personal ideas from being distorted.

Lynne Hollander Savio, a member of UC Berkeley’s 1964 Free Speech Movement and the widow of Mario Savio, said the limitations of talking and arguing with “real people” are gone due to social media.

“Many groups no longer consider it necessary to speak responsibly,” Hollander Savio said. “I agree with Reich. … We need to expand the laws that can keep the government or anyone from accessing our information.”

During her speech, Christ compared conservative writer Ben Shapiro’s appearance on campus to Milo Yiannopoulos’ canceled Free Speech Week, saying that in retrospect Yiannopoulos’ event seemed to be “fictional.” Christ added that the object of Yiannopoulos’ event seemed to be to create a large online presence, while the success of the event itself was less important.

In an email, Christ said “Reply All” was a better representation of free speech at Berkeley than the campus’s previous efforts, as it offered open dialogue and multiple perspectives on issues. Christ referenced her new commission to further examine the campus’s community values, policies and practices on free speech as a form of engagement.

“It is what we do every day, and should be understood as free speech,” Christ said in an email. “I will continue to support free speech; I think it is fundamental to our democracy and to our university. However, I also believe the university needs to have many occasions — like today’s symposium — to deeply engage the issue.”

Campus freshman Daryanna Lancet, who attended the lecture, believed being an active participant in bettering social media was key to free speech.

“Media can be used to divide or bring people together,” Lancet said. “I would urge people to look into it and become more active. If this is something that weighs on your mind, consider it.”

Contact Mary Kelly Ford at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @MaryKellyFord1.