Happy anniversary, “Free Speech”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the “Free Speech Movement” at Berkeley. Chancellor Nicholas Dirks sent anniversary message to faculty and staff entitled “Civility and Free Speech” that Greg Lukianoff found to be luke-warm at best.

Mr. Dirks noted that the “free expression of ideas” is a “signature issue for our campus,” but he cautioned that free speech can cause “division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation” and may threaten the “delicate balance between communal interests.” That may be true, but that’s the point.  Freedom of expression can shake things up and disrupt dogmas—and that’s a prized feature of open discourse, not a bug.

Mr. Dirks writes that “we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so.” But a right to freedom of speech that ends whenever someone on campus claims not to feel “safe and respected” is a right to little more than polite chitchat. Speech that’s free-with-some-qualifications means that students and faculty are left unable to take on the big debates and questions in a way that should be expected in an academic setting.

And while students should certainly feel “safe,” it is important to recognize that these days the word has wandered far from its literal meaning. Feeling “safe” on college campuses means something closer to being completely comfortable, physically and intellectually. Boundary-pushing comedian Lenny Bruce, a hero to the Free Speech Movement, wouldn’t have lasted a minute in front of today’s college kids.

Mr. Dirks may have thought his call for civility would be uncontroversial, but even this seemingly benign message should not be greeted uncritically. As John Stuart Mill noted in “On Liberty” in 1859, calls for civility are often a tool to enforce conformity. A fierce and angry defense of the values of the dominant class might be hailed as righteous rage, but even a milder, dissenting opinion is easily labeled uncivil.

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

After decades of campus censorship, students have been taught not to appreciate freedom of speech, but rather to expect freedom from speech. This unnerving development can be seen in the rash of episodes last spring when students and even faculty pushed to bar commencement speakers and other public figures with whom they disagree. It can also be seen in the push toward applying “trigger warnings” to literary works, including “The Great Gatsby,” if they might cause emotional distress to certain readers.



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One Response to Happy anniversary, “Free Speech”

  1. Paul Marks says:

    Short version. The left claim to support freedom of speech – but, in reality, they hate freedom of speech and are doing all they can to destroy it.

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