Free Speech in Berkeley Redux

Becky O'Malley
Friday September 19, 2014 - 02:22:00 PM

After last week’s editorial reporting on various discussions in academe about the virtues of maintaining civility in disputes, I got a couple of comments from friends connected at one time or another with the University of California, perfect gentlemen both.

Each claimed the prize for recognizing that one of my rude quotes was probably authored by Thomas Jefferson, from the Declaration of Independence.

And both politely disagreed with the absolutist tone of my criticism of Chancellor Dirks. 

From Tony Rossmann, who teaches at the Berkeley law school: 


“Unlike say Stanford's president a decade or so back, or this chancellor in Illinois, Dirks is not proposing to sanction anyone for their form or content of speech. He's not saying that something is so hateful that we will not allow it. He is reminding folks that (without defining them) there are boundaries that we should voluntarily observe. And I would argue that in the context of say a university lecture those boundaries may be a little sharper than on Telegraph Avenue. You can't shout someone down by sheer vocal force -- unless of course you have cause for civil disobedience, but let's remember that that is not civil, but deliberate disobedience to standards.”
And from Chris Adams, who worked on the university’s physical planning: 


“I think there is something to be said for civility. In west Marin, where we go often, the debate about the oyster farm has definitely been uncivil, by which I mean that the attacks, mostly but not exclusively on the side of the farm proponents, are often about the character, intelligence, honesty, etc. of the those on the other side rather than on the issues themselves."  

My reply to both of them was a quote from a collateral ancestor of mine, Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his 1862 essay “American Civilization”, in which he argued the necessity of the emancipation of slaves: “There can be no high civility without a deep morality”. 

But they’re not wrong in suggesting that if at all possible civil discussion is a good goal, in the academy and outside it. 

Responding to the critics of his original Free Speech Movement letter, Chancellor Dirks came back in a September 12 press release for a second bite of the apple, an attempt to clarify what he’d been trying to say in his previous email: 

“Every fall for the last many years, we have issued statements concerning the virtue of civility on campus. This principle is one of several that Berkeley staff, students, faculty and alumni themselves developed and today regard as “fundamental to our mission of teaching, research and public service.” To quote further from our “principles of community”: “We are committed to ensuring freedom of expression and dialogue that elicits the full spectrum of views held by our varied communities. We respect the differences as well as the commonalities that bring us together and call for civility and respect in our personal interactions.” For a full list of these stated principles, please see http://berkeley.edu/about/principles.shtml. “In this year’s email, I extended this notion of civility to another crucial element of Berkeley’s identity, namely our unflinching commitment to free speech — a principle this campus will spend much of this fall celebrating in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement.  

“My message was intended to re-affirm values that have for years been understood as foundational to this campus community. As I also noted in my message, these values can exist in tension with each other, and there are continuing and serious debates about fundamental issues related to them. In invoking my hope that commitments to civility and to freedom of speech can complement each other, I did not mean to suggest any constraint on freedom of speech, nor did I mean to compromise in any way our commitment to academic freedom, as defined both by this campus and the American Association of University Professors. (For the AAUP’s Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, please see http://www.aaup.org/issues/academic-freedom.) 

“I did, however, express my conviction that in the ongoing debates on campus about these and other issues, we might collectively see the value of real engagement on divisive issues across different perspectives and opinions. By “real engagement” I mean openness to, and respect for, the different viewpoints that make up our campus community. I remain hopeful that our debates will be both productive and robust not only to further mutual understanding but also for the sake of our overriding intellectual mission.” 

In response, members of the FSM-Archives and the 50th Anniversary Organizing Committee issued this revised statement dated September 16, 2014: 



Dear Chancellor Dirks,
The Free Speech Movement Archives and the Organizing Committee for the FSM 50th Anniversary would like to thank you for generously supporting our efforts to commemorate the Free Speech Movement and to keep the memory of those events alive. We look forward to seeing you at our reunion.  

In the spirit of civil discourse, we would like to bring to your attention some history regarding the question of what the movement was about, what we won, and what it means for the campus today. In your email to the campus community on Friday, Sept. 5, you said, “The boundaries between protected speech and unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between debate and demagoguery… have never been fully settled.” 

In fact, these questions were fully settled. On Dec. 8, 1964, the Berkeley Academic Senate adopted a resolution stating that “the content of speech or advocacy shall not be restricted by the University.” This resolution was then reinforced by the regents’ resolution on Dec. 14, 1964, which stated, “Henceforth University regulations will not go beyond the purview of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.” 

In celebrating the half century that the campus has been “a symbol and embodiment” of the idea of free speech, you are proudly and properly acknowledging the outcome produced by the movement in the fall of 1964. But your statement seems to miss the central point. The struggle of the movement was all about the right to political advocacy on campus. The UC administration of that time insisted it would not permit on-campus speech on advocating student participation in off-campus demonstrations that might lead to arrests. The African-American Civil Rights Movement was then at its height, and students rejected these restrictions. This attempt to restrict our rights produced the Free Speech Movement. 

It is precisely the right to speech on subjects that are divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings that we fought for in 1964. From the roof of the police car blockaded in Sproul Plaza, we heard a song written by UC graduate Malvina Reynolds — who earned a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. — that summed up our feelings toward the UC administration and others who were then trying to rein in the Civil Rights Movement. The song was titled “It Isn’t Nice.” 

“It isn’t nice to block the doorway. It isn’t nice to go to jail. 

There are nicer ways to do it, but the nice ways always fail. 

It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice, 

You told us once. You told us twice. 

But if that is freedom’s price, we don’t mind.” 

We note that the charge of “uncivility” was recently used by Chancellor Phyllis Wise of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to justify the discharge of professor Steven Salaita following controversial statements he posted on his Twitter account. For this reason, many read the call for civility in your letter as a potential threat to academic freedom and to freedom of speech. 

We understand you have issued no regulation nor taken any steps to restrict political advocacy or “uncivil” speech on campus. Nonetheless, we are concerned that your call for “civility” may have — or already has had — a chilling effect on the exercise of free speech by UC Berkeley faculty and students. Therefore, we welcome your Sept. 12 message that you do not intend to limit or regulate speech on campus, and we ask that you take every opportunity, during this 50th-anniversary semester, to reaffirm the policy that — as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s First and 14th Amendments — the content of speech or advocacy shall not be restricted by the university. We thank you for your email clarifying that you are fully committed to uphold and affirm the proud traditions established on campus 50 years ago. 


The Board of Directors of the Free Speech Movement Archives and the 50th Anniversary Organizing Committee 

Lee Felsenstein, Gar Smith, Anita Medal, Bettina Aptheker, Susan Druding, Barbara Garson, Jackie Goldberg, Lynne Hollander Savio, Jack Radey, Barbara Stack, Steve Lustig, Karen McLellan, Mike Smith, Dana MacDermott, Jack Weinberg and Margy Wilkinson 


So where does all this leave us? I guess I’m still going to hang with old Uncle Ralph. 


Sometimes things come up that are so deeply immoral that ordinary notions of civility just don’t apply. Slavery was one such thing, little dispute about that these days. My genteel slave-holding Virginia ancestors would have disagreed, but they would have been wrong, as was Mr. Jefferson on this question. 

Another immorality, it seems to me, is the continued injustice in what the government of Israel is doing to the people of Palestine. Professor Salaita’s infamous tweets were highly uncivil, but he was responding appropriately to the deep immorality we all witnessed in the last months--soccer-playing boys gunned down on a beach, U.N. schools demolished, empty apartment buildings destroyed in the most crowded territory perhaps on the surface of the earth, hundreds of innocent children killed. I myself, seeing one of the reports of what was going on in the last Gaza war, swore loudly and long in a way startling to my daughter who had never heard me do such a thing—she was surprised that I even knew the words. 

Someone, sometime, even on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, might have a similar reaction to this or a similar outrage, and it should be their right—no, their duty—to express their opinion in suitably angry words. In fact, I believe someone on that campus once, now a while ago, made a statement about this duty that’s lasted for a few years and is still relevant. 


Just saying…