Holocaust survivor, former ACLU leader debate free speech at BAMPFA

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Activist and Holocaust survivor Ben Stern has stood up to Nazis three times — first, as a young man growing up in Poland during World War II; then, in Skokie, Illinois, in the 1970s; and then again, this summer, in the streets of Berkeley.

Stern brought his unique perspective, gained from a lifetime of opposing hate speech, to “Free Speech and Its Limits: An Unfinished Conversation,” a panel discussion and film screening held at Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA, on Thursday night.

Chancellor Carol Christ introduced the film “Near Normal Man,” produced and directed by Stern’s daughter, Charlene Stern. Afterward, a polarized panel discussed the film’s implications for debates over free speech on campus and around the nation.

The panel included the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, Ira Glasser and Dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Edward Wasserman, as well as several student representatives: Simone Dill, communications director of Cal Black Student Union; Manu Meel, executive vice president of external affairs at BridgeUSA at Berkeley; and Luis Tenorio, a campus doctoral sociology student.

The film documented how Ben Stern, 95, escaped the horrors of Nazi death camps only to face Nazis again in the United States. After a group of neo-Nazis announced its plan to march through Stern’s new hometown — Skokie, Illinois, which was predominantly Jewish — Stern tried to thwart the group in court.

While Glasser and Meel argued that free speech must be protected in any situation, Dill and Tenorio stood with Stern, agreeing that certain ideologies are too dangerous and hateful to legally condone.

But the ACLU, of which Glasser was a high-ranking leader, successfully defended the Nazis’ legal right to march, prompting Stern to take to the streets, rallying thousands from his community and beyond to stand up against the group. The Nazis never showed up.

Glasser and Meel and said allowing the government to determine what can and cannot be said endangers everyone.

“Legal restrictions on speech are like poison gas,” Glasser said. “They seem like a useful weapon when we control it … but when the political wind shifts, the poison gas can blow back upon us.”

Glasser and Stern met in person for the first time Wednesday. The spirit of Glasser and Stern’s friendship, and their message that difference of opinion does not preclude understanding and friendship, guided the night’s talks.

“We were apprehensive about meeting,” Charlene Stern said.When we went to pick up Ira Glasser, Dad jumped out of the car and said to Ira, ‘We’ll say hello as friends and goodbye as friends. What happens in the middle? Who knows.’ ”

Both sides agreed, however, that cohesive, organized activism and solidarity between oppressed groups is necessary to fight hate and intolerance.

David Levine, a UC Hastings School of Law emeritus law professor who attended the event, said he felt that the event overextended itself, despite its interesting content.

“They were trying to do an awful lot in a short period of time,” Levine said. “Since you had this unique opportunity to put Ira Glasser and Ben Stern together in one event, I would have focused on that unique opportunity for them to meet and talk.”

As the event’s slotted time expired, Wasserman, who moderated the event, had to cut off the panelists mid-debate.

“It’s (in) the nature of a discussion about free speech to end on an open-ended note,” Wasserman said.

Sam Levin covers student life. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @SamJLevin.