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.
I welcome your comments in the section below.