News | 11 October 2017

Free speech! Hold firm!


October 10, 2017

By Distinguished Professor, Feminist Studies

The Free Speech Movement (FSM) at UC Berkeley in fall 1964 involved upwards of 20,000 students before it was over, and more than 800 of the Berkeley faculty voted in support of its demands at its Academic Senate meeting on Dec. 8, 1964. The FSM coalition spanned the political spectrum at the time from the Young Republicans to the Young Socialists, to communists, to students variously affiliated with civil rights, religious, and environmental groups. As a result the Regents of the University of California revised their regulations that had previously banned communists and “controversial speakers” from visiting the campus, and prevented students from holding rallies, distributing literature, and posting fliers.

The Regents affirmed that henceforth their regulations would not go beyond the purview of the First and 14th amendments to the United States Constitution. Only the time, place, and manner of speech would be subject to regulation so as not to disrupt classes or the flow of pedestrian traffic and so forth. Registered student organizations, departments and so on needed only to request permits for their events in a timely manner. This movement effectively marked the end of the last remnants of the “McCarthy period” in which scores of faculty had been fired for refusing to sign “loyalty oaths,” and in which hundreds and thousands of folks across the country had lost their jobs and been blacklisted. From this point of view, historians generally mark FSM as a kind of watershed in re-establishing democratic traditions and First Amendment rights in the country.

FSM is also often cited as the first mass movement of what became the New Left, riding on the strength of the black-led civil rights movement that climaxed with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. FSM was credited with inaugurating northern student protests against the Vietnam War. For these reasons, among others, Berkeley emerged as an iconic symbol of radical and liberal politics.

Within weeks of the inauguration of Donald Trump, therefore, it is not at all surprising that the “alt-right” led by Milo Yiannopoulos determined to hijack the issue of “free speech.” Acting on invitations from a rightist student organization, he and Ann Coulter tried to speak on campus in February 2017. While hundreds and hundreds of students assembled to peacefully protest their presence because of their racist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic hate speech, a smaller group known as antifa—shorthand for anti-fascist—engaged in disruptive street actions that shut the events down altogether because the university felt it could not “guarantee their safety.”

Shortly after this, Yiannopolous was widely denounced and forced to resign his position as a senior editor of Breitbart News when he condoned and seemed to advocate the legitimacy of sexual relations between 13-year-old boys and adult men and women. The Conservative Political Action Conference cancelled an invitation for him to speak, and Simon and Schuster publishers cancelled their book contract with him. Neither Yiannopolous nor anyone else accused the Conservative Political Action Conference or Simon and Schuster of infringing on his rights of free speech. Presumably, however, UC Berkeley, as both a public university and an iconic symbol, falls under a different standard.

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