The independent news organization of Duke University

Free speech spectacle

The University of California Berkeley campus was quite literally on fire this past February when riots broke out on campus during a planned speech by fascist and well-known agitator, Milo Yiannopoulos. Following the outrage and protests that made national headlines, two subsequent events, a planned visit by Ann Coulter—which was cancelled—and a speech by Ben Shapiro last Thursday, cost Berkeley roughly $600,000 each. 

The hefty price tags for security brought the costs incurred by the university to a staggering $1.4 million.  Another series of events is purported to be planned for next week and has been dubbed the “Berkeley Free Speech Week”.  There are currently conflicting reports of the event schedule, the planned speakers and whether events will occur, but regardless of what happens UC Berkeley will principally deal with the consequences, financially and otherwise. These circumstances offer an opportunity to reflect on the history of the university as a battleground for free speech and the contemporary dilution of that legacy by antagonistic political factions.

This isn’t the first time that UC Berkeley has served as the central character in a national discussion around right to free speech. The Free Speech Movement of the 1960s found home on its grounds and was the first instance of mass civil disobedience at a university. It resulted in the abolition of bans in place for on-campus political activity, removed restrictions on student free speech and led to the protection of academic freedom while activist students and faculty asserted their right to involvement in the Civil Rights, Anti-Vietnam War and Counterculture Movements. The Free Speech movement extended the protections of free speech afforded by the US Constitution to the campuses on which we all work or live, where they were previously deprived and deeply changed the way that students and faculty engage on campus allowing opinion dissenting from administrative oversight to be heard and celebrated.

While organizers of this modern wave of “free speech” efforts have not explicitly framed their actions as a continuation of the social movements of the 1960s, their choice of UC Berkeley as ground zero for their efforts, in addition to a brief perusal of their event schedule, makes the connection clear. The organizers wish to promote the idea that the free speech of right-leaning individuals is somehow oppressed on university campuses. 

Any truth there might be to this rallying cry is undermined by the fact that Berkeley leadership has repeatedly affirmed the right of speakers of various backgrounds to come to campus, at great cost to the public and the university, with the understanding that counter-demonstrations would be allowed—for they are free speech in themselves. The apparent need of organizers to invite only the most infamous and inflammatory speakers available for their cause, most who lack any academic background, the constant complaints about counter-demonstrations and the persistence in staging these events on a campus garnering national attention rather than at numerous university venues, bring into question the goals of organizers. When Charles Murray was invited to speak at Duke, opportunities for him to engage with campus academics like Charmaine Royal, who's working on themes of race and genetics, were missed. This exemplifies the true nature of the current free speech spectacle. It routinely invokes the values of open and free dialogue, yet removes opportunities for deep academic discourse between visiting and local scholars.

Ultimately, any free speech on university campuses is a sacred right won for us by the valiant work of the pioneers of the Free Speech Movement. Diverse viewpoints should be allowed to be expressed in dialogue on campuses because such perspectives build toward the goal of universities as sites for inquiry, reflection and intellectual challenges. However, the spectacle of current efforts obviates the real benefit of allowing controversial views and their dissenters a voice. 

Sadly, at the center of it all is a beleaguered public university charged not only with serving the poorest students in our nation, but also saddled with the financial burden of advancing the careers of political provocateurs. 

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