The 50th anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement is upon us, and we’re willing to concede that the founders of the movement had a good slogan—even if it pains The Scrapbook to contemplate the damage done by “campus activists” since then. Whether the social and political change it foments is good or bad, free speech is obviously preferable to any censorious alternative.
Well, maybe not so obviously. Thus the specter of contemporary liberals who go out of their way to remind people that they are the inheritors of a tradition of free speech that, by any objective standard, they no longer believe in. And they refuse to see the contradiction between free speech and their own authoritarian impulses—whether it’s trying to outlaw political campaign spending they dislike or inveighing against unpopular opinions as “hate speech.”
By these lights, UC Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks’s September 5 email acknowledging the anniversary was a real beaut. “As we honor this turning point in our history,” Dirks writes, “it is important that we recognize the broader social context required in order for free speech to thrive.” You can probably guess where this is heading.
“The boundaries between protected and unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between the campus and the classroom, between debate and demagoguery, between freedom and responsibility, have never been fully settled,” Dirks says. This is a truism, and it fails to acknowledge that these issues are far more settled than, say, supporters of unconstitutional campaign finance laws and university chancellors who promulgate campus “speech codes” would have you believe.
Dirks’s clarifications are even less helpful. “Specifically, we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility. . . . Insofar as we wish to honor the ideal of free speech, therefore, we should do so by exercising it graciously.” It is emphatically not true that the right to free speech depends on whether or not you are in a safe environment. Your right to free speech predates and stands apart from any government that threatens it, and history is full of heroes and martyrs who can testify to that. Patrick Henry would probably agree that “Give me liberty insofar as I feel safe and respected in speaking up!” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as the original.
The call for civility is actually a fine thing, if you value civil society. It’s pretty hard, however, to assume such benevolent motives for a guy who, again, enforces a campus speech code as part of his professional obligations at a taxpayer-funded institution. Campus speech codes are routinely abused, and their legality is definitely not a settled question. In this context, a call to civility carries with it the whiff of cordite from a warning shot.
The kids at Berkeley in 1964 at least had enough understanding of their rights to stand up and claim them. Today, the kids at Berkeley have had their understanding of free speech warped by guardians such as Dirks, and the few kids who do have unpopular opinions express them at their peril.