In the Battle Between Free Speech and Bullies, Free Speech is Losing

“This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.” – Inscription on the Free Speech Monument on the Campus of UC, Berkeley.

The year was 1964, when Mario Savio—a student at the University of California, Berkeley jumped on top of a police car in Sproul Plaza. Inside the car was Jack Weinberg, a student who had been arrested for distributing political literature on campus. At the time, university regulations prohibited any advocacy for political causes or candidates, recruitment, or fundraising by student organizations on campus.

Savio was far from alone. Within moments, thousands of students surrounded the police car, which remained there, stuck, for 32 hours. Weeks and months pass, with protests spreading, but the college administrators not budging. Finally, Savio leads a rally to Sproul Hall where he gave a now-famous speech.

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious – makes you so sick at heart – that you can’t take part,” Savio said. “And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”

Savio, and hundreds of students who followed him on the mass sit-in, were arrested and taken to jail, but university administrators had had enough. They slowly began to back off of the ban on political speech and established rules for political activity. The “Free Speech Movement” as it came to be known had succeeded.

Sadly, it’s gains appear to be receding.

UC, Berkeley officials on Wednesday canceled a scheduled speech by conservative author Ann Coulter over concerns that they could not keep her safe. In a letter to Bridge USA, the nonpartisan group that invited her to speak, chancellors at the university said they were “unable to find a safe and suitable venue for your planned April 27 event featuring Ann Coulter.”

The announcement came less than two weeks after College Republicans were forced to cancel conservative author David Horowitz after university police said they could not provide adequate security, and thus the event would have to be held at a venue away from campus in the middle of the day.

The University received swift condemnation from across the ideological spectrum, including progressive Robert Reich, who called Berkeley’s actions “a grave mistake.”

“Free speech is what universities are all about,” Reich wrote on his blog. “If universities don’t do everything possible to foster and protect it, they aren’t universities. They’re playpens.”

Even The Onion got in on the act, writing satirically:

Advising students to remain in their dormitories and classrooms until the situation was resolved, the University of California, Berkeley declared a campuswide lockdown Thursday after several loose pages from The Wall Street Journal were found on a park bench outside a school building. … “As of now, the perpetrator remains at large, so it is vital that you stay where you are until the all-clear is given. In the meantime, notify police immediately if you have any additional information at all regarding this incident.” At press time, a black-clad group of 50 students were throwing bottles at the bench while chanting, “No Nazis, No KKK, No Fascist U.S.A!”

And yet the University’s actions aren’t a laughing matter. Even though University officials ultimately reversed their decision to cancel, the best they could commit to was offering Coulter an inconvenient venue on Tuesday, May 2nd, a day which happens to fall on a week when students have no classes. But suggesting that free speech can only be afforded at certain times and places is no less ridiculous than deciding it doesn’t exist at all.

As Steve Chapman writes in the Chicago Tribune, the disturbing actions suggest that in the battle between First Amendment and censure, censure has won:

For any school to impede speakers because critics might protest violently is to give the critics control of who may speak. That’s why Berkeley’s handling of Coulter is so dangerous. At the moment, it’s rewarding thugs for being thuggish and thus encouraging more thuggery. It threatens to make the school a hostage to bullies instead of a place where ideas may be heard and answered without fear.

That’s a sad legacy for a university with a profound legacy on free speech. Students at Berkeley “put their bodies upon the gears” of power in order to fight for their right to engage in political speech on campus. And somehow fifty years later they’ve become the machine designed to appease bullies and crush free speech. What a swift and sad reversal.