This February marks the anniversary of the riots that rocked our school following the visit of conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. The images and videos from that night were broadcast around the nation, and conservatives seized every opportunity to decry the fact that UC Berkeley, home of the vaunted Free Speech Movement, was acquiescing to the tyranny of black-clad antifa.
The campus is still feeling the impact of that event. For one thing, our student union now appears to be named after a German theologian, as the removal of the “King Jr” signage after it was hit by a paint grenade now leaves only the words “Martin Luther.” But the battle rages on in more significant ways, as the Department of Justice recently backed the Berkeley College Republicans, or BCR, in its lawsuit against the campus administration.
In its original suit, BCR alleged that the campus deprived them of their free speech, due process and equal protection rights on at least two occasions, most notably when Ann Coulter was scheduled to visit. Berkeley was once known as the “birthplace of the Free Speech Movement,” the suit explains. “For over a century, UC Berkeley has been a campus well known for its tolerance of various viewpoints,” but “its welcoming atmosphere … has become distinctly more hostile to conservative views in recent years, a trend that accelerated after the 2016 Presidential election.” A sorry fate indeed for the hallowed home of the Free Speech Movement.
Berkeley sure seems to have a reputation for this “Free Speech” thing. In the orthodox narrative, it was the brainchild of a group of plucky kids who had the guts and gumption to fight for their right to speak freely. In 1964, as the story goes, Jack Weinberg tried to demonstrate on Sproul Plaza, but he was arrested by the campus police ordered by UC President Clark Kerr. Mario Savio climbed the steps and spoke about blood and gears, Weinberg was freed, and the rest was history — until five years later, when “evil” Ronnie Raygun tried to bulldoze picturesque People’s Park. Once again, the students organized and again beat the system. Free speech was brought to Berkeley and People’s Park: a tremendous victory for civil liberties, right?
Wrong. The so-called “Free Speech Movement” was never truly about free speech — it was always about the causes of those involved. To be sure, the goals for which the Free Speechers fought were largely worthy and good. On the day he was arrested, Weinberg was staffing a booth for the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights group that played a major role in ending segregation but was banned from campus activities because of administration policy at the time.
But the Free Speech Movement had many more insidious elements as well. It is often considered a part of the New Left, a movement of leftism that grew in both numbers and righteous fury across American college campuses in the ‘60s. The New Left were often Marxists, who flirted with the ideas of such ideologues as Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong. Savio himself toyed with Marxism, writing in 1994 that “Marx is a poet. Even when I was very young, I heard, I remembered, I could not forget: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’ It could come out of the Bible, it is so beautiful.” In fact, much of the New Left’s success stemmed from frustration with the Soviet Union — for deviating too much from Marxist principles. So much for free speech.
BCR likes to claim that they are the “New Free Speech Movement,” or, perhaps more infamously, they claim that “the Free Speech Movement is dead.” To do this betrays a genuine ignorance of the origins of the Free Speech Movement. Many of the goals of the Free Speechers were noble, but some were not. All were unified by a desire to allow political expression for their movements, but their movements only. As Sol Stern, a former UC Berkeley student and former radical, explained: “It was free speech for our views, but not free speech for your views.”
BCR is absolutely right to bring a lawsuit against the campus, for the campus has, time and again, egregiously impeded their right to bring controversial speakers to campus while making no such demands from groups on the other side of the spectrum. To claim continuity with the Free Speech Movement is ludicrous, though.
BCR has no continuity with the Free Speech Movement of the ‘60s. Where the Free Speech Movement was openly and often radically left, BCR instead associates with the most nativist and uncouth voices of the right. All these two movements have in common is their desire to use free speech as a means to an end. If the Free Speech Movement were transported to the streets of Berkeley a year ago, they certainly wouldn’t be wearing red hats — but some of them might have been wearing black masks instead.