The University of California, Berkeley, has undergone some visible changes since its foundation to the present. One of the most startling differences seems to be how the notion of free speech has evolved across the campus. In the 1960s, UC Berkeley was the epicenter of student counterculture, as well as opposition to the war in Vietnam. During the middle of the decade, the free speech movement was in full throttle, with students protesting the university’s ban of student-led political activities. In one of the most influential pieces of American rhetoric of the 20th century, 24-year-old Mario Savio called for a student revolution against the establishment of the university and of the country, saying, “And you’ve got to put your bodies on the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus—and you’ve got to make it stop!” From this cry, the counterculture of the 1960s was born.
In 2017, the tables have turned. It is the university who now supports free speech, and it is the student body and faculty who support censorship. A string of protests have sprung across Berkeley campus and its surrounding areas these past few months due to controversial speakers coming to give optional lectures at the school. The sparks were ignited when Milo Yiannopolous, a British activist commonly associated with the alt-right movement, was scheduled to speak on Feb. 1. Protests against Yiannopolous materialized on Sprout Hall, the same steps on which Mario Savio called for free speech 51 years prior, which soon became violent when supporters of the speaker came to counter the opposition. After arson and property damage commenced, the university canceled the event citing safety reasons. A very similar protest occurred when conservative activist Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak on Apr. 27. Though he university canceled her speech days prior in order to prevent violence from materializing as it had in February, Coulter insisted that she still planned to speak irrespective of university approval or not. Ultimately, protest groups from both the far-right and the far-left converged on the campus on the 27th to either protest or support Coulter, she in fact never showed for the event.
Although the 27th protest was much more peaceful compared to the Yiannopolous’ incident, this event revealed a fundamental problem with American political discourse today: free speech ain’t what it used to be. On both the far-right and the far-left, the notion of free speech has become ‘you have the right to speak as long as I agree with what you are saying’. The only problem is that this alteration is not free speech, and this censorship catalyzes the growing political extremism on both the left and the right of the spectrum.
I tend to disagree with Coulter and Yiannopolous on many issues. Yet I find it abhorrent that students would censor their ability to utilize their first amendment rights, and that the university would sanction such a censorship. Coulter herself is an extremely intelligent analyst: on an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Coulter predicted that Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination in June of 2015, back when almost everyone in the country believed his candidacy was a business stunt or a practical joke.
The diminishment of freedom of speech is not a problem that lies solely with the left. Many conservative activists have also been seen protesting, as was seen during Linda Sarsour’s commencement speech at the City University of New York’s graduation this May. Sarsour, a Muslim-American and chief organizer of the Women’s March, is also a vocal supporter of Palestinian statehood. Sarsour herself has said various controversial things regarding Israel, including the claim that Zionists cannot be part of the feminist movement.
Similar trends are materializing overseas as well. In Portugal, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Austria, Italy, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Greece, Israel, Lithuania, and Russia, it is illegal to deny the events of the Holocaust. Although these laws were made with good intent and Holocaust denial is one of the most abhorrent beliefs a person could have, these restrictions are, by definition, violations of the freedom of speech. The cure for Holocaust denial is not state-sponsored legal action, but academic debate showing the true horror of the Holocaust. It seems that having state regulation of thought would radicalize people more than if Holocaust denial were to become legal. In fact, in many of these countries, there is growing sentiment in favor of the far-right despite these laws. For example, Jobbik, a Hungarian far-right and anti-Semitic party, currently holds 24 seats in the Hungarian parliament. Marine le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front Nationale, has made it to the second round of the French presidential election.
The tendency to listen to and acknowledge only that which supports your beliefs is an extremely dangerous phenomenon. Even as a Jewish-American, I would support Sarsour's ability to speak her ideas and would not endorse state-sponsored restrictions on Holocaust denial. The rise of the Internet has done immeasurably great things for humanity, but one of the negative results is that many Americans find themselves in a political echo chamber, hearing only those people who endorse and set in stone all of their own beliefs. So when this person hears someone who doesn't agree with them, what is their natural reaction? This person is wrong and shouldn't be allowed to speak?
If we as Americans want to remedy our fractured political landscape, we must reinstate pure freedom of speech and look back to Berkeley, not as it is now, but as the university was half a century ago.
Jason Beck is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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