Since the 1960s, University of California, Berkeley has been at the heart of the free speech movement. No matter the heavily conformist culture of this time period, students fought for the right to be free thinkers. Facing a campus-wide ban on political activities, students organized en masse. Despite the contrarian nature of their views they had a constitutional right to organize and express their opinions. Just because their views were considered derelict did not mean that their events should be shut down.
The students wanted to be able to gather and discuss their views in the grand exchange of ideas. They argued for academic freedom, discussion and speech. They wanted students and professors alike to be free to hold views that broke from the status quo. Even though many of these protesters were of the far left, individuals of all political persuasions could respect their beliefs. These students made their stand and the administrators backed down. The university began to take steps to create a campus that is open to debate, discussion and dissenting ideas of all political persuasions.
For decades, it was the perseverance of students that maintained the right to expression at college campuses throughout the country.
However, over the past two decades, the tides have slowly begun to turn. Students are beginning to petition administrators to restrict speech. There are calls to have controversial speeches canceled and clubs unchartered. The grand exchange of ideas is being isolated to small, free-speech zones on campuses while the campus proper is being labeled a safe space where dissent from the public norm is considered an affront to decent society.
Luckily, students from various parts of the political spectrum are beginning to push back against the fringe groups organizing to limit speech on campus. Even though the war has been waged for over six decades, the fight for free speech is not yet won. In this new era, U.C. Berkeley once again finds itself at the center of the movement.
Just months ago, conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at U.C. Berkeley as part of his campus speaking tour. Yiannopoulos’ brand represents a combination of edgy humor and contrarian opinions. His appearance would mark the epitome of truly accepting the essence of free speech. Unfortunately, his event was met with profuse violence. Anti-fascist protestors organized in droves to assault Trump supporters, setting fire to trees and launching fireworks at the building where Yiannopoulos was speaking. The situation escalated to the point where Yiannopoulos needed to be evacuated from the building. The university announced that $100,000 worth of damages were caused during the protest.
More recently, conservative, best-selling author Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak at U.C. Berkeley. Her appearance was met with heavy resistance from students and outside groups. At this point, the climate was far from peaceful. The time between Yiannopoulos’ appearance and Coulter’s planned speech was marked with fierce violence that traversed beyond the boundaries of the U.C., Berkeley campus. The same Antifa protestors engaged with supporters of President Donald Trump.
In this climate, the university could not guarantee Coulter’s safety. Amid the chaos, the two student groups sponsoring her appearance pulled their invitation. This led to a bipartisan rallying cry of support behind her. Even Bernie Sanders and Bill Maher came to Coulter’s defense. This demonstrates the most important takeaway from the situation in U.C. Berkeley: free speech is not a partisan issue. Out of all the issues that divide the nation, one truth unites everyone: despite how contrarian someone’s views may be, he or she deserves to speak freely.
Eric is a Public Affairs student who is active in the Baruch College Republicans. He recently founded a nonprofit, Doxa, to increase “debate, discourse and citizenship.”