Where free speech is ever fraught

Berke­ley chief weighs in on why it’s cru­cial to pro­tect ideas, no mat­ter how odi­ous.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - TERESA WATANABE When Ann Coul­ter spoke at Smith Col­lege some years ago, the fac­ulty and stu­dents wanted me to dis­in­vite her. And I said no. … teresa.watanabe@la­times.com

SAN DIEGO — UC Berke­ley, home of the free speech move­ment, has be­come the na­tion’s most prom­i­nent stage for vi­o­lent con­fronta­tions be­tween the left and the right. Last week, nine peo­ple were ar­rested protest­ing a cam­pus talk by con­ser­va­tive writer Ben Shapiro, and Milo Yiannopou­los, Ann Coul­ter and Stephen K. Ban­non all are ex­pected to visit Berke­ley later this month. The cam­pus has spent hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in se­cu­rity costs to pre­vent vi­o­lence.

Chan­cel­lor Carol T. Christ, who has more than three decades of teach­ing and ad­min­is­tra­tive ex­pe­ri­ence at Berke­ley and also served as pres­i­dent of Smith Col­lege, said a “com­bustible mix” of chang­ing youth sen­si­bil­i­ties, po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion and the choice of univer­sity cam­puses as bat­tle­grounds has made pro­tect­ing free speech more fraught than ever. She spoke with The Times on Wed­nes­day in San Diego, dur­ing a break in the UC re­gents meet­ing. You’ve been at Berke­ley more than 30 years. Have you ever seen it take such se­cu­rity pre­cau­tions for speak­ers?

It’s very unique. It’s a very dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal dy­namic where free speech … at Berke­ley has be­come the oc­ca­sion for the right and left to con­front each other. … It’s a re­ally trou­bling sit­u­a­tion. I think we’re in an area which presents both chal­lenges to the law and to univer­sity pol­icy when a speaker oc­ca­sions the univer­sity to spend ex­tra­or­di­nary amounts of money and take ex­tra­or­di­nary mea­sures that are quite dis­rup­tive to the univer­sity’s main busi­ness in or­der to pro­tect the right of free speech. What is driv­ing this change?

Free speech has it­self be­come con­tro­ver­sial. We have a gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents now who are much more will­ing to think about re­stric­tions on speech. There are cer­tainly fac­ulty who also be­lieve that. I grew up feel­ing the lib­er­tar­ian lan­guage of John Stu­art Mill was ab­so­lutely nat­u­ral. It’s what I be­lieve. But that’s not true of a lot of stu­dents to­day. They grew up hav­ing lots of in­struc­tions in an­tibul­ly­ing, … on what con­sti­tutes ha­rass­ment. They’ve been told strongly and re­peat­edly that cer­tain kinds of speech are in­ap­pro­pri­ate. And so they don’t un­der­stand the dif­fer­ence be­tween how we say it’s right to act in a com­mu­nity, whether it’s a class­room or a dor­mi­tory, and what a public speaker is al­lowed to say in a public square. … I some­times say iron­i­cally that in 1964 it was the stu­dents for free speech and the ad­min­is­tra­tion was against it; now you’ve got this weird reversal. What are other changes?

Po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion. We ob­vi­ously have a sit­u­a­tion in the United States of the left and right find­ing it harder and harder to talk to each other. … There are groups — now I’m just talk­ing about the left but it’s equally true on the right — who have just given up on the po­lit­i­cal process and feel their im­por­tant weapon is plat­form de­nial, and a will­ing­ness to en­gage vi­o­lently. And that’s very new.

The third thing in this very com­bustible mix is uni­ver­si­ties are seen as the most im­por­tant sym­bolic stage for this con­fronta­tion, and Berke­ley is No. 1 among all of the sym­bolic stages in part be­cause of its his­tory with the free speech move­ment and in part be­cause of its his­tory as a very lib­eral cam­pus.

That’s why I’ve said it has to be a free speech year. ... The pro­tec­tions that are en­shrined in our Con­sti­tu­tion and sup­ported by case law since then of­ten con­flict with our val­ues as an in­clu­sive com­mu­nity. Think­ing through that ten­sion is a very im­por­tant piece of this con­ver­sa­tion. Do Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopou­los ad­vance the ed­u­ca­tion of your stu­dents?

I be­lieve John Stu­art Mill, that it’s re­ally im­por­tant that all speech, with some very lim­ited ex­cep­tions, be per­mit­ted and be open. Only in that way do you re­veal its men­dac­ity, its triv­i­al­ity. Our be­lief in free speech is most tested when it is speech that’s odi­ous or ab­hor­rent. What are al­ter­na­tive ways to protest? The stu­dents de­vel­oped a bril­liant protest. They filled the au­di­to­rium … and ev­ery five min­utes in her speech, a group of about 100 would stand up, turn their backs, stand … silently and leave. By the end there was al­most no­body there. And that to me is so much more of an ef­fec­tive protest than shout­ing some­one down. Shout­ing some­one down or pro­vok­ing a vi­o­lent con­fronta­tion just plays into the nar­ra­tive of the far right. You’ve spent about $800,000 on se­cu­rity for speak­ers since the Yiannopou­los event ear­lier this year. Is this sus­tain­able?

It’s cer­tainly not sus­tain­able. As I un­der­stand it, it’s an un­set­tled ques­tion in the law — what is a rea­son­able level of ex­pense for an in­sti­tu­tion to pro­tect the right of free speech? … I be­lieve in the cur­rent state of the law, this is our obli­ga­tion. But it’s not in the long run sus­tain­able. Steve Ban­non is com­ing to Berke­ley. What do you think about that?

Steve Ban­non is some­one whose ideas I find rep­re­hen­si­ble, but he was a mem­ber of our cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion and it should be of in­ter­est to many au­di­ences what he has to say. … That’s quite dif­fer­ent from a set of events over four days that re­ally par­a­lyzes the cen­ter of cam­pus be­cause of all the se­cu­rity pro­vi­sions and re­ally turns the cam­pus into a kind of stage set for a highly con­ser­va­tive set of speak­ers and events that seem de­signed to pro­voke. You’ve said be­fore that the safest space is in­ner re­silience. Do too many young peo­ple to­day lack that re­silience?

I mod­er­ated a fac­ulty panel on free speech. What was re­ally strik­ing to me was how many times the word “hurt” and “in­jury” were used by stu­dents in the ques­tion pe­riod. On the one hand, there is a much greater un­der­stand­ing ... and con­scious­ness of how words hurt. But I be­lieve that the hurt that words do is very dif­fer­ent than the hurt that phys­i­cal ag­gres­sion does. I made a point about in­ner re­silience at the fo­rum, and a stu­dent asked me ... straight out, in a wist­ful ques­tion, how do you de­velop this? It’s a lot eas­ier if you’re in your 70s than when you’re 18 or 19.

David Butow For The Times

CAROL T. CHRIST greets UC Berke­ley stu­dents. Nine peo­ple were ar­rested last week dur­ing cam­pus protests against con­ser­va­tive writer Ben Shapiro.

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