BERKELEY In recent months, white nationalists and other alt-right groups haveadvanced the argument that UC Berkeley isnt living up to its distinction as the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. By canceling events such as a February speech by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, they contend, the school is stepping on their First Amendment right to express themselves.
Carol Christ, Cals new chancellor, is well aware how that argument has gained steam in recent months. Before her tenure, former Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, who stepped down this summer, was criticized for addressing free speech issues reactively, not cooperatively.
So now, as a highly publicized, right-wing rally targets the city of Berkeley on Sunday, Christ is looking to regain control of the narrative. She has declared this school term a year of free speech in which the university will recount the origins of its free speech legacy and invite both conservative and liberal speakers to campus.
Free speech is not inexpensive, said Dan Mogulof, a spokesman for the university.
But in some ways, thats the cost to the school of reclaiming its reputation as the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement.
Free speech scholars say that if Christ succeeds in both fostering meaningful conversations and keeping violence at bay, the schools approach could serve as a model for other colleges grappling with the issue. In recent months, Pennsylvania State University, Texas A&M University and others have come under fire for declining to host right-wing activists and white nationalists, or canceling their talks.
On Wednesday, Christ emailed a letter with the subject line Free speech to the campus community and hosted her first fireside chat with student leaders on the topic.
This is the new reality, said Mogulof. We cant duck and cover. We have to be out there engaged in conversation.
Thats not how the school approached the free-speech issue as recently as last year and its certainly not how the school addressed it in the 1960s. In 1964, Dean of Students Katherine Towle prohibited students from taking positions on off-campus political issues because the university was hoping to minimize student involvement in political demonstrations off campus.
But the announcement backfired spectacularly. Faculty and students, led by a young Mario Savio, protested for months and ultimately won the right to speak openly. In response, most other colleges in the U.S. loosened regulations around political activity by students.
Today, anyone who sits on the famed Mario Savio steps at UC Berkeley for any length of time inevitably hears several languages and sees people from around the world pass by. For Cals leaders and many students, that ethnic and racial diversity has long been a point of pride.
But that diversityand the schools worldwide reputation as a progressive university also make the college a target for white nationalists and neo-Nazis.
In February, while Dirks was still in charge, Berkeley College Republicans invited Yiannopoulos to speak on campus. But tension between his supporters and opponents, not all of them affiliated with the university, erupted into violence that ultimately prompted the school to pull the plug on the event, citing security concerns. In the following months, the school raised similar concerns about having the conservative commentator Ann Coulter on campus.
The Berkeley College Republicans, joined by the Young Americas Foundation, filed a lawsuit alleging the school violated the First Amendment by imposing curfew and venue restrictions on Coulter and other conservative speakers.
Harmeet Dhillon, their lawyer, says it remains to be seen whether Christs tenure will bring an improvement in how the school handles free speech issues.
Christs comments so far mark a welcomefirst step, Dhillon said. However, they cannot address the deep-seated issues at Cal with a sort of fig leaf approach.
Shed like to see the university hire more conservative professors so that conservative students feel more comfortable sharing their views, she said. Were literally years or generations away from that at Cal, she said.
Bettina Aptheker, one of the students who launched the Free Speech Movement at Cal, is now a feminist studies professor at UC Santa Cruz. She is pleased Christ is addressing the issue head-on.
During the McCarthy era in the 1950s, while schools were cracking down on political advocacy, thousands of Americans were accused of and investigated for being communists by some on the right. In essence, Aptheker said, it was the right trying to suppress freedom of speech.
Now, she said, you have the ascendancy of the right again and a kind of hijacking of the free speech issue in a way that makes it seem like the left is trying to suppress freedom of speech which is not true.
Broadly speaking, the argument of Christ and other UC Berkeley leaders is that hate speech is best countered with more measured, thoughtful speech. That may be something Dirks believed but he didnt step forward like Christ to model the idea. Her approach appears to be resonating with professors and free speech scholars.
Youve got to protect the greatest possible range of speech, said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. The answer to really idiotic racist speech is speech explaining why its idiotic and racist.
Former New York City police officer Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, agrees.
Universities have been doing a laudable job of having a diversity of people, but what theyve not been doing a laudable job of is getting a diversity of ideas, he said. This is a test of academia and we are failing.
But not everyone is so sanguine. Zaynab Abdulqadir-Morris, a Cal senior and president of the Associated Students of the University of California, said she wants more students to be comfortable interacting with people who have different views. But shes also concerned about the real threat of violence when rallies and protests happen on or near campus.
And she thinks theres a line between fostering debate and opening the campus to provocateurs like Yiannopoulos.When speech is grounded in hate for another person, she said, its not free speech any more.
In her letter this week, Christ pushed back at that notion, writing: Some constitutionally protected speech attacks the very identity of particular groups of individuals in ways that are deeply hurtful. However, the right response is not the hecklers veto, or what some call platform denial. Call toxic speech out for what it is, dont shout it down, for in shouting it down, you collude in the narrative that universities are not open to all speech.
As a public university, Berkeley officials acknowledge they must balance protecting free speech with preventing the violence that has plagued rallies on campus in the past, or worse, deadly confrontation, as happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a young woman was killed earlier this month.
Ahead of Sundays rally which is on city, not university, property Cal has been in close contact with city officials, Mogulof said. The school is providing information on how to protest safely to students who want to join a counterprotest and also supportive services to students who are anxious about the rally. The school has learned from past protests that it needs to have more police in place for free speech events than it has in the past,Mogulof said.
Aptheker and Orfield point tothe peace that was maintained in Boston recently when thousands of counterprotesters overwhelmed a much smaller free speech rally that some white supremacists had promised to attend.
If its done well, Orfield said, it will create an example for the rest of the country.
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