Thursday, April 27, 2017
The incoming Berkeley chancellor will need to do more than lament
The Regents are likely to discuss this matter at their upcoming May meeting. Possibly, they will do it in closed session if the Coulter litigation is still pending. That would be a shame. Some open discussion is needed. Below is what Dirks said:
Berkeley Is Under Attack From Both Sides
Nicholas Dirks, April 26, 2017, NY Times
BERKELEY, Calif. — The University of California, Berkeley, and the community around it have been symbols of free speech for more than 50 years. We still celebrate the legacy of Mario Savio and others who fought in the 1960s to ensure that the First Amendment be honored on campus.
But today Berkeley is facing extraordinary challenges to living up to this legacy. The campus has become a magnet for groups who seek to use the site of the birth of the Free Speech Movement as a staging ground for violence and disruption.
The now-canceled campus speech by the conservative author Ann Coulter is a dramatic case in point. The Berkeley College Republicans invited Ms. Coulter without consulting with the university about the date of the event. This meant we at the school were unable to identify a place and time that could satisfy the extensive but necessary security requirements.
As a compromise, the college identified other dates and times for the event — during a forthcoming reading week or early in the fall semester — during which secure venues would be available. Meanwhile, we were receiving mounting threats of violence around the event. People describing themselves as anarchists and anti-fascists openly threatened to prevent Ms. Coulter’s talk “by any means necessary.” Right-wing groups threatened to appear on campus armed to ensure the opposite — they declared the event would be held “by any means necessary.”
Given the reality of our times, we could not ignore these warnings. Berkeley has been the site of violent clashes this winter and spring — most notably when the right-wing writer Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak in February. Masked protesters infiltrated peaceful student demonstrations and set fires, injured people and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. While the school remains absolutely committed to ensuring that all points of view can be voiced and heard, we cannot compromise the physical safety of our students and guests in the process.
Ms. Coulter responded by announcing she would speak on the date on which she had originally been invited, but in a public space on campus called Sproul Plaza. But even though the Berkeley campus police department had called for reinforcements from across the state — at enormous expense during a time when California universities face a severe budget shortfall — it could not safely secure the public area. On Wednesday, Ms. Coulter said that she would not speak here at all; the Berkeley College Republicans and other sponsors had withdrawn their backing over safety fears.
Violence, of course, is a silencing tactic. It is the antithesis of open inquiry and of all the university represents. The question for Berkeley now is whether our commitment to the tradition of free speech extends to the point where we must allow our campus to be used for a publicity circus that has little to do with liberal discourse.
To say that Berkeley is liberal is not to say that all faculty members and students share the same political perspective. Nor does it mean that everyone agrees on how to interpret the First Amendment. It means that the university adheres to a common set of values that allow the practice of open, inclusive and unfettered inquiry. Despite the myriad political perspectives on campus, there is widespread agreement that free speech, including the right to protest, is a fundamental value here.
This academic liberalism has become a stalking horse for both the far right and the far left: The far right accuses us of indoctrinating students into what they call a mind-set of “political correctness.” The far left accuses us of allowing the promotion of ideas, such as intolerance and exclusion, which are at substantive odds with the inclusive principles of the campus community.
I agree that inquiry on college campuses is not always as open as it should be, and I agree with those who suggest that we need to be better at teaching the principles and history of jurisprudence around the First Amendment. After all, the First Amendment was written to protect against the possible tyranny of majority factions and the government.
But the use of force has entered the discourse around the First Amendment in an alarming way. The university has been accused of not responding aggressively enough against our own students, and the institution must now invest more public tax dollars in equipping campus police forces to subdue campus protests — even though the perpetrators of violence have been groups with no campus affiliation.
Free speech may be the new clarion call of the far right, but the real subtext of those who try to disrupt institutions built on principles of openness and inclusion with violence is only barely disguised. Berkeley’s status as a symbol of free speech and protest makes it a tempting site for the staging of physical confrontations between both sides.
This spring, the school has collaborated closely with many student groups on campus, including the Berkeley College Republicans, to ensure that we can host speakers of their choosing in a safe and secure manner. Yet, our academic commitment to openness can succeed only if the school does not become a center for violence. Educational institutions need to make urgently clear the reasons the First Amendment is so critical to our nation, on campus and off. The future of liberal democracy is endangered when the university becomes the focus of attacks.