In the past few years, UC Berkeley has been attacked for being “anti-free speech” and has been portrayed in the media as an institution that is ideologically homogeneous. But our unique history tells us that this is not the case. We are the home of the Free Speech Movement, and our legacy is a testament to UC Berkeley’s impact on the national political conversation. The pressure recently directed at our administration, accusing it of denying free speech on campus, led it to review the campus major events policy. This new policy now ensures that student organizations and groups that want to host events must all undergo the same procedure, which is applied “in a viewpoint-neutral manner and without regard to the content of any performance or speaking aspect of the event.”
The chancellor and administration have dealt with the enormity of free speech challenges in a commendable manner with their immediate implementation of the free speech task force, which has engaged “one-third faculty members, one-third students, and one-third staff or administrators, all appointed by the chancellor,” creating an open and inclusive dialogue about free speech on this campus. The conflicts UC Berkeley has faced balancing guest speakers on campus whose speech contradict campus values of respect and dignity make the issue of free speech on our campus even more difficult to address. Ensuring that the UC Berkeley campus is conducive to a safe learning environment is also challenging when individuals damage campus and city property. This is why I am wholeheartedly supportive of the administration’s policy and admire the work it has done to guarantee freedom of speech on our campus. In my opinion, the administration is truly supporting a solution-oriented political culture and is taking active steps to both guarantee the safety of UC Berkeley students and demonstrate the university’s commitment to ideological diversity.
The mere fact that the toxic political environment requires that this policy be created, however, is disappointing. We need the campus administration’s involvement, as well as the students’, in addressing issues regarding free speech. As the Commission on Free Speech recently recommended, we must support a “free speech culture” to guarantee that campus remains an environment that fosters thoughtful discussion across a wide spectrum of thought.
Sometimes free speech is distasteful, disrespectful and disagreeable. Our campus saw this type of speech firsthand when Milo Yiannopoulos came to our campus in February 2017. That day was a frightening wake-up call for anyone who witnessed the violent events. It is apparent that Yiannopoulos came to provoke. His rhetoric was offensive, racist and transphobic. Nevertheless, he had a constitutionally protected right to come to campus in order to express himself. His presence made many feel unsafe and angry. No speech is grounds for violence, however. When speech is harmful, that speech should be countered with more productive speech. It is incumbent upon us to use our free speech responsibly and respectfully. It is imperative that we accept our intellectual duty to criticize ideas that we find distasteful while still safeguarding a culture of free inquiry.
UC Berkeley students have the honor to walk the Sproul Plaza steps as did Mario Savio, the voice of the Free Speech Movement. Savio is often pointed to when the media criticizes our campus for being hypocritical. Yet it is also important to remember that Savio clarified free speech as a means of responsible discourse. Savio emphasized that the best use of our free speech is that which is thoughtful and holds significance. Savio used his words to inspire and to create change. Savio did not use his words to degrade individuals or to instigate conflict. Channeling the Savio within all of us will encourage speech with intent rather than senseless rhetoric. While we must do everything to protect free speech, we must also recognize that it is incumbent upon us as citizens to practice this right responsibly.
Free speech must be utilized toward a productive end, or else we are doing a disservice to those who established the right. Students need spaces on campus to foster constructive dialogue across the political spectrum. BridgeUSA, a student organization on campus, provided me a means to surround myself with a group of diverse UC Berkeley students who all share a commitment to taking part in constructive discourse. The Berkeley chapter of BridgeUSA is just one of the 27 chapters across the country aiming to bring students together to have empathetic and productive discussion on college campuses. The club is not just about politics, but rather part of a greater movement that hopes to affect many aspects of society. Our nation faces extreme partisanship and polarization, separating us from the humanity we share. It is time for us to lead by example. If we millennials pledge to engage in respectful and empathetic discussions, perhaps our parents, community leaders and politicians will do the same.
Our generation of UC Berkeley students is at a crossroads. We can’t let the media paint our student body as one that does not foster the productive exchange of ideas. Instead, we must reclaim our reputation as a university that is committed to creating spaces for intellectual inquiry. UC Berkeley students are not afraid of engaging with those with whom we disagree. We transcend ideological conformity. We use our free speech in the most productive way — to further the intellectual debate and support the production of constructive ideas. We have the right to free speech, but it is necessary for us to also practice that right meaningfully.
Alexandra Barr is the president of BridgeUSA at Berkeley.