[Marxism] Mayhem at Berkeley Hardens New Battle Lines on Free Speech

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Feb 6 06:18:07 MST 2017


Chronicle of Higher Education
Mayhem at Berkeley Hardens New Battle Lines on Free Speech
By Beth McMurtrie FEBRUARY 03, 2017

More than 50 years ago, the University of California at Berkeley became 
the birthplace of the free-speech movement. Thousands of students 
protested restrictions on political activity on campus, the university 
relented, and the state’s future governor, Ronald Reagan, railed against 
disruptive students and a weak administration.

Echoes of those early conflicts appeared this week following violent 
protests against a controversial speaker known for his anti-immigration 
and anti-feminist rhetoric. Berkeley once again became the center of a 
free-speech debate, this one framed as a conflict between the right to 
free expression and an imperative to fight hate speech.

As dozens of protesters smashed windows and started fires Wednesday 
night to stop Milo Yiannopoulos, a Breitbart editor who has been touring 
college campuses, from taking the stage inside Berkeley’s student union, 
the chaos was broadcast on national news and lit up social media. 
President Trump weighed in on Twitter early the next morning:

The Berkeley administration, which had repeatedly resisted requests from 
students and professors to ban Mr. Yiannopoulos, was quick to respond 
with a news release condemning the violence and pointing out that the 
campus "was invaded by more than 100 armed individuals clad in masks and 
dark uniforms who utilized paramilitary tactics" to shut down the event.

In other words, they were separate from the 1,500 students who the 
university said had gathered peacefully to protest Mr. Yiannopoulos’s 
message.

"This is part of what’s called the black bloc group," said Dan Mogulof, 
a university spokesman, naming an anarchist group that has disrupted 
peaceful protests in the Bay Area and elsewhere with violence. "They 
came armed. They came with a clear plan to disrupt. We have no evidence 
to suggest that any of them were our students."

A number of eyewitnesses supported that conclusion, he said, noting that 
many of the violent protesters seemed not to know their way around 
campus or how to get out. The police have made at least one arrest and 
are reviewing video to identify other suspects.

On social media and elsewhere, however, the narrative of the radical 
Berkeley student dominated. The Heritage Foundation, the conservative 
think tank, tweeted out adjacent photos: "1964: Berkeley students march 
to demand free speech. 2017: Berkeley students riot to demand free 
speech be denied." Young Americans for Liberty, a conservative student 
organization, issued a news release claiming that 1,500 protesters threw 
smoke bombs, damaged property, and started fires, proving, the group 
said, that "even the most liberal, open-minded campuses in our country 
harbor intolerance for those that disagree with them."

Breitbart News, which has backed Mr. Yiannopoulos’s "Dangerous Faggot" 
campus tour, published an article titled "The Night Berkeley Betrayed 
the Free Speech Movement," finding parallels between the plight of 
conservatives today and Berkeley activists in the 1960s.

Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism who teaches at the City 
University of New York’s Hostos Community College, sees parallels, too, 
but in a different way. The anger that protesters expressed, he says, 
"is a reflection of the fact that the political system is broken."

Mr. Yiannopoulos, he notes, has been touring college campuses and 
inciting protests for months. But now that Donald J. Trump is president 
and Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, is his chief 
strategist, Mr. Yiannopoulos "is essentially one handshake away from the 
presidency," Mr. Johnston says. "So his schtick resonates very differently."

Mr. Johnston also thinks free-speech advocates on the right have 
whitewashed the 1960s’ protests. When the police attempted to arrest a 
Berkeley student for handing out civil-rights literature on campus in 
1964, thousands of fellow students staged a massive sit-in, preventing 
the police car from moving.

"Mario Savio, the hero of the free-speech movement, said in his most 
famous speech that there comes a time when the operation of the system 
makes you so sick at heart you have to put your body on the gears of the 
machine," said Mr. Johnston. "I don’t think that principle is such a 
huge distance away from what we saw last night."

The right has essentially flipped the free-speech argument, Mr. Johnston 
says. "A lot of protesters perceive, not unfairly, that that cry of free 
speech is far more often raised against them than in support of them."

Donald P. Moynihan, a professor of public affairs at the University of 
Wisconsin at Madison, is one of many who think the violent protesters 
played into the hands of conservatives looking to make the case that 
colleges are bastions of liberal intolerance. "Their next argument is 
that they need to do something to fix this problem," he said.

Red Meat for Reagan

When he entered the governor’s race in 1966, Mr. Reagan made the 
Berkeley protests a centerpiece of his campaign. "Will we allow a great 
university to be brought to its knees by a noisy dissident minority?" he 
asked. "Will we meet their neurotic vulgarities with vacillation and 
weakness?" Within weeks of his election, he helped ensure that Clark 
Kerr, president of the University of California system, was fired.

Mr. Trump suggested denying federal funds to universities that do not 
support free speech (see a related article), but possible legislative 
action in the states is what concerns Mr. Moynihan more. Some state 
legislators have introduced bills that attempt to regulate expression on 
campus. "We’ve always had student protests since the 1960s, and colleges 
survived," he says, "but I don’t think we’ll survive if we have 
legislatures micromanaging what constitutes free speech on campus."

The Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, released model 
legislation this week for state governments that would punish students 
at public colleges who shut down speakers on campus. Jim Manley, a 
senior attorney for the organization, said that if students clearly 
understand the risks of such protests — including suspension and 
expulsion — they will be less likely to act. "I’m not going to say this 
law is a panacea, but I do think it’s important to set free speech and 
free expression as the primary value of the university."

He praised Berkeley’s administration for defending Mr. Yiannopoulos’s 
right to speak, and said he was troubled by the fact that some students 
and professors had asked for the speech to be canceled. One such group 
argued in a letter to Nicholas B. Dirks, the chancellor, that Mr. 
Yiannopoulos’s tactics are so provocative — including naming and shaming 
individuals in videos that would then go viral — that they constitute 
harassment and potential defamation.

Judith Butler, a Berkeley professor and one of the cosigners of that 
letter, wrote in an email on Thursday that, while she continues to 
believe that Mr. Yiannopoulos’s actions should not be considered 
protected speech, "I deplore the violent tactics of yesterday and so do 
the overwhelming majority of students and faculty at UC Berkeley."

Hijacked by Anarchists

Avinash Kunnath, a 2010 Berkeley graduate who writes about sports on 
California Golden Blogs, wrote a post on Thursday that also countered 
the narrative that students had incited the violence. Anarchists, a 
familiar presence in the area, were to blame, he said, yet that was not 
the message aired publicly. "People have taken advantage of the Berkeley 
spirit of free speech to use it to advance their own agenda for a 
national audience," he wrote.

In an interview, Mr. Kunnath said that members of the black bloc 
frequently show up to otherwise-peaceful local protests to cause mayhem. 
"Really this was just meant to be a protest to express disdain for a 
certain speaker, and the actions of those people made the message more 
difficult to go through. They don’t deserve to be lumped in together."

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech 
organization, pushed back against Mr. Trump’s argument that Berkeley was 
preventing free speech and that withholding federal funds could be an 
appropriate punishment. In a statement, issued Thursday, the group said 
it had seen no evidence that Berkeley had tried to silence Mr. Yiannopoulos.

"It’s concerning to suggest that a school of tens of thousands of 
students could effectively be cut off because of the violent acts of a 
few," Will Creeley, FIRE’s vice president for legal and public advocacy, 
said in an interview. He praised Berkeley’s administration for its 
thoughtful handling of campus tensions leading up to the event and said 
he was disturbed by what President Trump’s remarks could portend.

"If the attention of the president of the United States can be gained by 
violence, and the president can be prompted to take punitive action 
against an institution," he said, "it seems to me it sets up a perverse 
incentive for those who don’t like an administration or a speaker to 
respond violently. That seems counterproductive and illiberal."

Mr. Johnston, the historian, says colleges should brace for more anger 
from both the left and the right. "We’re in for a rough ride," he said.

Beth McMurtrie writes about campus culture, among other things. Follow 
her on Twitter @bethmcmurtrie, or email her at beth.mcmurtrie at chronicle.com.



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