This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at U.C. Berkeley, a pivotal moment in the history of student activism and political organizing that laid the groundwork for the antiwar movement and other social causes. At that time, students and faculty across the entire spectrum of political views joined together to protest a politically motivated change in university policy that would restrict the tradition of free speech on campus.
The protests against the nation’s engagement in Vietnam, and indeed the war itself, shaped the psyches of an entire generation.
The importance of the university campus as a vital marketplace of ideas, where opposing views are vigorously debated, is made a mockery by a wrong-headed move by some U.C. Berkeley students to keep social commentator and comedian Bill Maher from delivering the commencement address to its December graduation. The students’ retrograde narrow-mindedness is shocking, outrageous and PC mentality run amok.
Maher observed “I guess they don’t teach irony in college any more.” But this is no laughing matter. What prompted the move to disinvite Maher were his comments about Islam and the argument he had with Ben Affleck on the subject. The controversy recalls the brouhaha when Brandeis University cancelled writer and women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s commencement address last spring in response to student protests about her criticism of Muslim fundamentalism. The difference is that Brandeis caved to protest, while the current administration at U.C. Berkeley (craven 50 years ago in the face of outside political pressure) is standing by its invitation.
The coalition seeking to disinvite Maher, calling him “a blatant bigot and racist.” But religious scholar Reza Aslan, who vehemently disagrees with Maher about Islam, defends him nonetheless, saying Maher is most assuredly not a bigot. And wisely the Berkeley administration stood up for Constitutionally protected free speech.
In our lifetime, we’ve seen all kinds of trampling on the First Amendment, from attempts to drive Huckleberry Finn off library shelves, to halting skinhead parades, to refusing to publish Danish cartoons mocking Islam, to the Metropolitan Opera’s cancelling HD broadcasts of the controversial production “The Death of Klinghoffer.” Increasingly, as John O’Sullivan writes in the Wall St. Journal, content of speech is used as the justification to restrict speech. His piece (No Offense: The New Threats to Free Speech)also notes correctly that “the other side of free speech” is “the right to be offended.”
As a former editorialist, I would say that with the right to free speech comes the responsibility to listen to all sides of an argument. Then make up your mind. Do I find Bill Maher’s exercise of free speech to be offensive? I often do. But I am more offended by those who would silence him or anyone whose views are repugnant, irritating or dissonant with their own.
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One thought on “Berkeley students make mockery of Free Speech Movement”
In the fall of 1964 I was a sophomore at City College of San Francisco, majoring in English, intending to be a teacher of English composition. My sister was in her first year of graduate studies at UC Berkeley, and we both followed the development of the Free Speech Movement with interest.
If I recall correctly, the basic point of contention in 1964 was whether the University had the right or authority to limit the topics or scope of speech, discussion or debate by students on University grounds. Thanks to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, they did not then, and do not now, have that right or authority. More germane to this issue, neither do the students at UC Berkeley (or any other public University or College) have the right to limit the topics or scope of speech by any guest speaker merely because they may disagree with that speaker’s views.
Specifically, Islam is a religion, and in this country is equally legitimate a target of criticism or praise as any other religion. Islam includes a legal system, and some of the practices of that legal system are contrary to some of the most basic values and rights of the generally Judeo-Christian beliefs that underlie the American culture. As such, those practices within Islam are legitimate targets of criticism, discussion and debate within the United States.
Proper discussion and debate require that two or more viewpoints be prosecuted and defended. Discussion and debate of differing viewpoints is essential to the development of critical thinking, the ability to evaluate the accuracy or legitimacy of conflicting information, ideas or beliefs, even the ability to make informed choices in any aspect of life. The students of UC Berkeley who would prevent Mr. Maher from speaking at their commencement next month are, deliberately or otherwise, rejecting one of the most important lessons of life, which is that only through the transition from ignorance to objective awareness can humanity prosper and advance.
As H. L. Mencken said, “The whole drift of our law is toward the absolute prohibition of all ideas that diverge in the slightest form from the accepted platitudes, and behind that drift of law there is a far more potent force of growing custom, and under that custom there is a natural philosophy which erects conformity into the noblest of virtues and the free functioning of personality into a capital crime against society.”
The students who would prevent Mr. Maher from speaking at their commencement are advocating ignorance and intolerance, and no society advocating those things can long survive. Mr. Maher should indeed be welcomed to speak at next month’s commencement exercise.