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Free speech lawsuit against UC Berkeley disregards safety concerns of students

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FEBRUARY 13, 2018

So the free speech debate has deepened further. The U.S. Department of Justice, or DOJ, has filed a Statement of Interest in the lawsuit by Young America’s Foundation, or YAF, and Berkeley College Republicans, or BCR, against UC Berkeley. Now, I know that’s a lot of acronyms, but bear with me.

The lawsuit challenges the campus’s “discriminatory” management of campus visits by conservative speakers last April. Both YAF and BCR accuse the campus of violating their constitutional right to exercise free speech by charging extreme security fees and implementing a series of logistical hurdles for their bid to host Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter and other high-profile speakers. This, they claim, is a violation of the 1st Amendment.

Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to agree. The DOJ stated that it would “not stand by idly while public universities violate students’ constitutional rights”; Sessions has voiced support for the plaintiffs and struck a heavy blow to the campus.

So is Berkeley guilty?

The argument revolves around two competing sides of the free speech debate: freedom of speech and freedom from speech. While these are distinctly different entities, they are not mutually exclusive. We can all agree that an individual or group has the right to vocalize their opinion; when this begins to inflict physical or psychological harm on another, however, limitations must be drawn.

Indeed, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference,” is followed by the crucial amendment, “subject to certain restrictions for respect of the rights or reputation of others”.

This lawsuit must identify the point at which freedom from Shapiro’s rhetoric takes precedence over his freedom to espouse it in public. In initiating this litigation, YAF, BCR and now Sessions are asserting that Shapiro and Coulter’s liberty to speak did not violate personal freedoms on the UC Berkeley campus — it was simply an attempt to counter a perceived repression of right-wing conversation at Berkeley. They contend the campus is simply stifling alternative political views in an attempt to pamper its students.

Now, I will admit to finding myself somewhat bemused by the political correctness of the “safe spaces” debate on campus. One class in which the instructor attempted to explain plant reproductive cycles without using gender pronouns left me mystified. But Shapiro and Coulter’s freedom to address the campus cannot be equated to a case of unintentional offense in the classroom.

In my opinion, Shapiro’s objective was never to hold open political dialogue or construct engaging debate. Shapiro and others appear to be invited by BCR to incite hostility and provoke violence. When inviting these speakers, they were well aware of the potential harm this could precipitate.

This case is not simply about coddling the “fragile egos” of us snowflakes, as Sessions so eloquently put it. The campus did not charge the $10,000 security fee for its personal amusement; the violence these speakers have attracted in the past posed clear danger for many individuals, particularly minorities, on this campus. UC Berkeley does a poor enough job admitting these groups — it should be damn sure to protect those it has enrolled.

By granting Shapiro and Coulter unrestricted access to Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley would have been complicit in any resulting violence. Indeed, it could have found itself liable for failing to safeguard students, exposing itself to even more litigation. Furthermore, the campus’s obligation extends beyond the “Berkeley bubble” to its staff and the wider city of Berkeley, many of whom have found themselves the target of people such as Coulter.

Throwing his weight behind the lawsuit, Sessions claims to be championing free speech. However, it is yet another attempt to undermine institutions such as UC Berkeley that repeatedly and publicly criticize President Donald Trump’s administration. Contrary to its mission statement of “ensuring public safety,” the DOJ seems to sponsor violence. If the DOJ cannot be depended upon to protect public safety, who can?

Yet we must recognize the active role that organizations such as YAF and BCR play in stimulating much-needed diversity in campus politics. Political heterogeneity should be celebrated, not repressed.

By denying these groups a platform to articulate their sentiments, we not only suppress debate, but we also risk lending legitimacy to Sessions’ claim that we are unable to contend with challenging political views. Instead the answer is a more comprehensive conversation between a spectrum of ideologies.

But rather than create rigorous discussion, last year’s events, and now this lawsuit, have polarized our campus. If YAF and indeed Berkeley seeks to construct genuine free speech, it should place speakers from the right and left together in open panel discussions, facilitating a constructive debate over our divergent politics. Instead of throwing its weight behind the lawsuit, the Trump Administration could deploy its resources in constructing such open debate between the campus and its Republican student groups.

This lawsuit has been dismissed once before. But whether new support from the DOJ will alter this, we have yet to find out. Whatever the outcome, UC Berkeley and other higher education institutions across the nation must reconsider how politics is regulated on campus. If universities are to protect students and staff from harmful speech without inviting further legal challenges, we cannot afford a repeat of UC Berkeley’s $4 million mismanagement.

We must cement a more coherent and explicit ontology of “free speech.” It is failure to clearly delineate the parameters of freedom of and freedom from speech, and the resulting irresolute way the campus dealt with last year’s events, that fueled clashes and laid the foundations for this lawsuit. However, any discussion must be extended beyond the campus faculty and its students.

Isobel Duxfield is a junior exchange student at UC Berkeley majoring in geography.

FEBRUARY 14, 2018