We Must Never Silence Our Free Speech
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
To most outsiders, "Berkeley" is synonymous with "free speech." Simply uttering our university's name to them conjures up images of bearded bohemians and flower children peacefully rallying for a hippie cause of the past. Indeed, to this very day, our school is still envisioned as a utopia of free speech, where discourse of all sorts is allowed to flourish. And why should anyone think differently? Campus monuments like the Mario Savio Steps of Sproul Plaza and the Free Speech Movement Cafe reinforce our campus's reputation of being dedicated to unrestricted expression.
Unfortunately, this idealized vision is becoming more fiction than fact nowadays, as free speech violations on campus have been on the rise recently. Perhaps the best judge of the state of free expression at our university is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit group that protects civil liberties at colleges across the nation.
Indeed, our very own professor John Searle of the philosophy department, who himself was a faculty leader in the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, serves on FIRE's Board of Advisors. For over a decade, the Foundation's "Spotlight" rating has been well regarded as the preeminent method of assessing the condition of civil liberties at universities. Sadly, their evaluation of UC Berkeley is pretty mediocre - giving our school a "Yellow Light" rating for threatening student speech. Even more concerning, FIRE has seen a dramatic increase in reports of violations from our university recently, resulting in four cases over the last two years. In fact, two of those four occurred this last October alone!
Take, for example, an incident that occurred in Dwinelle Plaza on the 22nd of last month. Officer Sean Aranas of the University of California Police Department was riding his bicycle in the university's "Dismount Zone," a designated area of campus where cyclists are prohibited from riding their vehicles, when fourth year James Allen yelled at him, "Walk your fucking bicycle!" Aranas then proceeded to issue Allen a Student Conduct Incident Referral. Although on its face it would seem like cursing at a cop may be illegal, it is nevertheless protected under the First Amendment.
Indeed, the right to peacefully dissent is a pivotal check against tyranny that has historically been greatly cherished. After all, as the Roman poet Juvenal once asked, "Who will watch the watchmen?" Fortunately, this story has a happy ending; thanks to FIRE's help and a sensible administrator, the unconstitutional charge against Allen was completely dropped, marking a much-needed victory for freedom of expression - ironically, at the home of the Free Speech Movement.
Sadly, this was not just an isolated violation of free speech. Just less than a week later, the expression rights of the newspaper you are currently reading were violated. On the morning of Oct. 28, 3,000 copies of The Daily Californian were stolen from a sidewalk on Bancroft Avenue before arriving at their distribution points. Although it may seem like taking an excessive number of free newspapers is legal, it is indeed a breach of expression law under an ordinance that the Berkeley City Council approved in 2003, after Mayor Tom Bates similarly stole 1,000 copies of The Daily Californian during election season. Freedom of the press for centuries has been considered to be a vital foundation to our American democracy, hence why it is enumerated in our First Amendment. Thus, this theft marks yet another illiberal attempt to censor students' voices.
As California Golden Bears, we should be proud of our university's rich history of free speech. However, we must be ever vigilant to ensure that our reputation is an accurate reflection of reality. Freedom of expression is not a static state of liberty that cannot be undone, but rather is an enduring goal that we must constantly fight for.
These recent attacks on free speech are not just mild infringements; rather, they symbolize an assault on our right as freethinking individuals to actively and knowledgeably engage with the world around us. Perhaps our very own Mario Savio put it best when he said, "Freedom of speech is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is."
Let us make sure that we are never stripped of our dignity.
Casey Given is the president of Students for Liberty at Berkeley. Reply to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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