ASUC fails students when it comes to free speech

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Genesis Cruz/Staff

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The freedom of speech of our fellow UC Berkeley students is seemingly being threatened by the actions of the ASUC.

I am Jewish. Like many other American Jews, I was raised in a household that practiced reform Judaism. I had my bar mitzvah at 13; I participated in cultural exchanges with Jewish teenagers from Israel and Mexico; and I plan on taking my birthright trip to Israel sometime before I turn 25.

Growing up Jewish in Southern California, I dealt with my fair share of immature individuals who thought it would be appropriate to berate me for being Jewish, make Holocaust jokes at my expense and occasionally throw a penny or two at me. This is anti-Semitism. Students protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory are expressing a political viewpoint — not being anti-Semitic.

While I would be the first to admit that there are some instances of anti-Israel propaganda containing anti-Semitic references, for example, such as when Jews are portrayed in a derogatory sense or taunted with references to money. Here on campus, that is not the case. Sadly, some of our elected officials in the ASUC seek to use the idea of UC Berkeley being anti-Semitic to take away the freedom of speech from other students on campus. 

In early December, ASUC Senator Milton Zerman sponsored a senate resolution titled “Condemning Bears for Palestine for Their Display in Eshleman Hall Glorifying Violent Terrorists.” In this resolution, Zerman calls upon campus student group Bears for Palestine to take down its Eshleman Hall cubicle display of photos of Palestinian leaders. The ASUC Senate’s University and External Affairs Committee meeting voted on this bill Feb. 10 and ended with ASUC Senator Shelby Weiss being the only member on the committee to vote in favor of the bill. The fact that a morally askew bill such as this was able to make it this far in the ASUC shows that UC Berkeley does not have an anti-Semitism problem like Zerman might claim, but rather a First Amendment one.

Sadly, with President Donald Trump’s December executive order, Zerman might have a case to push forward a similar bill in the future. In this executive order, Trump now puts anti-Zionism under the umbrella of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin, race, ethnicity and other factors, as they relate to organizations receiving federal assistance. For a public university such as UC Berkeley, this applies to any school-funded club or organization as well. 

The rationale behind this executive order is to equate being anti-Israel with being anti-Semitic, categorizing Judaism as a race or ethnicity. The issue with this particular executive order is that groups on campus that vocally support Palestine or are vocally anti-Israel are now in danger of having funding pulled — these clubs could even be kicked off campus entirely — simply for using their First Amendment rights.

In theory, all speech is free in the United States. The Supreme Court over time, however, has defined a few exceptions to the rule, consisting of acts such as inciting violence, burning draft cards or advocating illegal drug use at school-sponsored events. Students who are advocating their opinions on a geopolitical issue, such as Israel-Palestine, do not fall under any of these exceptions, thus making their speech free and protected by law. UC Berkeley is regarded by many as the home of free speech. We were the epicenter of the Free Speech Movement in 1964-65, and even have a café named after these events. Fifty-five years later, it seems as though UC Berkeley’s definition of free speech has been skewed. 

One of UC Berkeley’s best attributes is the amount of diversity it has. When one thinks of diversity, they may think of race, religion, ethnicity, culture or socioeconomic background. Something that seems to always be left out, however, is having diverse viewpoints, that is seeing the world as it is rather than with tunnel vision.

From my experience, it seems to be the louder voices on campus who have the thought process that if someone says something they do not agree with, then it should not be said at all. In our student government, many of our elected officials have a similar stance to Trump’s, equating being anti-Israel to being anti-Semitic when in fact they should be protecting the speech of all students, regardless of viewpoints.

It is abysmal that UC Berkeley and the ASUC have failed to address this executive order or Zerman and Weiss’ seeming attacks on free speech. By not speaking up to protect the speech of our fellow students, the other ASUC senators and UC Berkeley are seemingly complicit in the systematic repression of students’ First Amendment rights.

Kelvin Ervais is a sophomore at UC Berkeley majoring in political economy and minoring in data science.