Free Speech

Berkeley Chancellor: Free Speech Is Great and All, But…


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It's the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley, and Chancellor Nicholas Dirks sure has a funny way of showing his love for the First Amendment. He recently sent a campus-wide email filled with Orwellian doublespeak about how free speech can "undermine a community's foundation" if it leads to "division." Just try to make sense of his message:

As we honor this turning point in our history, it is important that we recognize the broader social context required in order for free speech to thrive. For free speech to have meaning it must not just be tolerated, it must also be heard, listened to, engaged, and debated. Yet this is easier said than done, for 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. As a consequence, when issues are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings, the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and divisiveness that undermine a community's foundation.

Uh, what? It sure sounds like he's discouraging students and professors from engaging in provocative speech—we wouldn't want to divide the community, now would we?

Thankfully, since the email's release, several free speech experts have published superb rebuttals to Dirks. Here is Ken White of Popehat:

Chancellor Dirks is using a variation on a common censor's trick — saying "well, the First Amendment doesn't protect all speech, and sometimes the line is blurry" to justify broad restrictions. This is akin to me walking up to you, punching you in the face without warning, and saying "well, not all violence is prohibited. Under some circumstances it is permissible."

Yes, the First Amendment doesn't protect everything. Yes, not every possible First Amendment question has been resolved. Yes, sometimes First Amendment analysis is complex. But most often we deal in questions that have conclusive answers. Universities would like to pretend otherwise, and strive for ambiguity where there is none,but most campus speech issues are easily resolved by anyone sincerely concerned with the rule of law. Can students hand out the United States Constitution outside of an arbitrary "free speech zone? Yes. Can public schools punish students for mere crass insults? No.

And here is Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, in The Wall Street Journal:

In my 13 years defending student and faculty speech, I have learned that campus administrators are most likely to deem as "uncivil" speech that criticizes them or the university's sacred cows. Meanwhile, students who agree with the administration are likely to be complimented for speaking truth to power. …

Chancellor Dirks's heart may be in the right place. But his disinclination to offer a rousing endorsement of free speech—or even to explain its basic importance—is another example of the ambivalence and even outright hostility toward free expression found too often on today's campuses.

Lukianoff's latest book, "Freedom from Speech," discusses some of the latest threats to free speech, including trigger warnings and campus speaker disinvitations.

For more on the gradual death of free speech culture at college campuses like Berkeley, read Reason editor in chief Matt Welch's "When the Left Turrned Against Free Speech."

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  1. "When the Left Turrned Against Free Speech"

    The instant they got power?

    1. They were never for free speech. Budd Schulberg realized that, which is part of the reason he named Communists: they were all for his free speech as long as he said things they agreed with.

  2. That all sounds doubleplusungood.

    Also, and without ripping the guy too badly, when a former reason author messed up the FSM founder's name at the Restore the Fourth rally in D.C. a few years ago? Funny. If you don't know it, don't make it a big blowhardy point to say his name like you do. I just remember Ken Kesey taking the piss out of Savo in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

    Damn cozmos.

    1. Ya know, if you had spelled Savio's name right, you might have had some cred.
      Now you've just come across as a pedant with names to drop.

      1. Uh, natch.

    2. FSM founder's name

      Bob Henderson? Founder of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

  3. "As we honor this turning point in our history, it is important that we recognize the broader social context required in order for free speech to thrive. For free speech to have meaning it must not just be tolerated, it must also be heard, listened to, engaged, and debated."
    Uh, OK, I guess...
    "Yet this is easier said than done, for the boundaries between protected and unprotected speech"
    Protected and Unprotected speech?!
    WIH is this asshole writing about? Free speech is free-damn-you-can't-outlaw-it-speech!
    Stuff your "protected and unprotected" speech up your butt and wander off into the bay over there. I won't toss you a life-ring.

  4. Who would have thunk that fans of Mao and Castro thinks that freedom of speech only applies to people who agree with them?

  5. It's pretty funny that "progressives" are aping the "reactionary" 19th Century Europeans who opposed Freedom of Speech. Same reasoning that we need censorship to prevent demagogues from spreading lies, division and hate.

  6. The original Left were pretty supportive of killing dissenters so I'm not sure were we got this idea that the Left ever supportive free speech.

    1. Well, I suppose at one point their rights were being infringed, and so they had to fight for "free speech", and people may have thought they actually gave a shit about rights in general, rather than as a means to their own power.

    2. I don't know that Savio ever claimed a left bias. If the civil rights efforts can be called left, he was in the south in the early '60s.
      But that's the FSM in Berkeley in the '60s; I don't know of any "left" political group that favored free speech; any group associated with the USSR certainly didn't.

  7. They wanted to be free to say what they believed; they don't want people to be free to disagree. It's not about liberty, but who/whom bullshit.

  8. How in the hell can you possibly write an article about Nicholas Dirks and not include a picture of the twerp?

    I know, I know, you didn't include a picture of him because you figure somebody's playing a joke on you and nobody could possibly look this stupid, but behold the visage and doubt no longer that god has a pretty messed up sense of humor when he's been drinking.

    1. My next Halloween costume.


    3. OMG, the son of Una Brau and Ned Flanders!

    4. You can't fool *me*, Jerryskids. That's a Dr. Seuss drawing.

    5. That is exactly how I pictured the Chancellor of UC Berkley.

  9. There's already a way to settle the question of whether speech is protected--on campus or off campus. If someone uses speech to defraud you, slander you, make violent threats against you, etc., simply call the police.

    We've got this thing called a "criminal justice system", and they've been really good at convicting criminals for fraud and violent threats for a really long time.

    This is nothing new.

    You can also sue people if the prosecutor won't prosecute. Every day in this country, somewhere, somebody gets sued for something they said.

    Why do academics imagine their polices are above and beyond the law?

    1. Unbridled hubris coupled with life in a bubble?

      1. Pretty much, yeah.

  10. Dude's a progressive corporate hack. He wrote a non-treatise on free speech. He wrote words, but they didn't mean anything. It was essentially a word salad of "on the one hand".

    The problem is, Dirk isn't atypical, he's absolutely common. He's what I would label "usual".

  11. The reason the battle for free speech is being fought on university campuses is because the assailants know that if they win there, they've won.

    1. Maybe. That higher education bubble can't pop too soon.

  12. I was trying to think of some contextual rationalizations that could be made for praising the FSM as needed and beautiful for its time - BUT - times are different now.

    My first thought was that "Well, they were struggling under the extremest right-wing tyranny of governor Ronald Reagan. That timing didn't seem right and I double checked. In fact they were struggling under the extremest crony-wing tyranny of Pat Brown (Brown the first).

    1. For a second, I thought FSM was Flying Spaghetti Monster, then I remembered it was Free Speech Movement.

      1. Oh, someone already made that joke above.

        1. It keeps getting funnier every time I hear it.

  13. Shorter Dirks - free speech is overrated.

  14. And that sir is why you always roll with the punches.

  15. While I agree that calls for civility can be misused, I should also say that some of my colleagues use 'freedom of speech' as an excuse to say the most toxic, angry, obnoxious things at open meetings, or while interviewing candidates for administrative positions.

    Faculty at all the universities I have taught at have the reputation (among, for example the support staff, such as the secretaries and IT support folks) as being arrogant assholes. And I can honestly say some of my colleagues over the past thirty years have been exactly that. But you can't point this out to them, because they immediately invoke the First Amendment. It's like troll behavior where you're not allowed not to feed the troll.

    1. There are lots of ways to deal with unpleasant speech without being illiberal.

      1. I'd be open to suggestions. When I've tried to suggest that being rude, especially to 'subordinates' is inappropriate I'm usually accused of being an administrative toady.

        1. Fire professors who don't straighten out.

          Except all the arguments that are dismissed when used to defend free speech rights of students are suddenly valid when applied to justifying tenure for professors.

    2. "But you can't point this out to them, because they immediately invoke the First Amendment. "

  16. (Full disclosure: I'm a member of the UC Berkeley public affairs staff)

    UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks has issued a second letter to campus on the topic of free speech and civility - take a look:

  17. This speech is pure BS!

    The University and this Chancellor intentionally encourages and invites the RADICAL VIOLENT PROTESTING ACTIVITIES by taking nlo significant action to prevent what they announce is the likely action of those "radical cowards who will come masked to violently threaten anyone that is interested and damage the University property to frighten any opposition. The complicit Police Department and the invisible University Security Personnel are shamefully as responsible for allowing this violence as the Chancellor and all of the leadership of the University.

    The notion of this University as "champion of free speech" is a blatant lie as is becoming more and more prevalent from all of the Leftist "progressive" academic world.

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