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UC Berkeley’s Free Speech History Isn’t as Pristine as It Thinks

February 7, 2020

February 7, 2020 
By Nathan Callahan 

The home of the anti-war movement in the 1960s, the University of California, Berkeley is quite proud of its record on free speech. UC Berkeley is so proud, in fact, that its “Free Speech Movement Cafe” recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its opening on campus. A glowing article on the school’s library website states that the librarians of UC Berkeley believe that “the memory of the Free Speech Movement is as alive as ever”. But if recent history is any indication, free speech at Berkeley clearly isn’t as healthy as they might believe. At Berkeley, it’s clear that consequences for attempts to silence free speech are needed—the Goldwater Institute’s campus free speech model legislation is a great example of how to ensure “free speech” actually means something at Berkeley and at schools across the country.

In November of last year, conservative commentator Ann Coulter returned to UC Berkeley in a second attempt to speak at an event hosted by Berkeley College Republicans. (Coulter had previously been invited in 2017, but the campus disinvited her following threats of violent protests, leaving the event without protection by campus police and resulting Coulter and her sponsors canceling that event.) One student who went to the November 2019 event to challenge Coulter wrote that as he entered the event, he, “had to run and hop over a barricade, while police tackled ‘non-violent’ protestors who were chasing those attending the event.” 

While Coulter was actually able to speak this time, free speech is certainly still under threat at UC Berkeley. Conditions for free speech have improved on the UC Berkeley campus, but only after Berkeley College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation successfully sued the school last year in the wake of UC Berkeley’s repeated cancellation of conservative speakers in 2017. A 2018 UC Berkeley internal assessment of the state of its campus free speech had called the events “the assertion of individual rights at the expense of social responsibility,” effectively blaming the groups for the violence of protesters.   

Coulter may have been able to speak last year, but at Berkeley other incidents such as the assault of a student promoting the Leadership Institute, an organization that trains conservative student activists, highlight the continuing threat to free speech on the campus. In its campus free speech model legislation, the Goldwater Institute has laid out a plan for ensuring that those who trample the free speech rights of others are subject to consequences, including suspension and expulsion for repeated offenses. Such actions, however, would be undertaken after a thorough hearing that preserves the right of due process. The law protects all speech, regardless of politics, regardless of whether it’s speaker or protester, because threats to unpopular speech are threats to all speech. Through the Goldwater law, legislators should have the power and duty to enforce the First Amendment against public schools to protect students and taxpayers.

UC Berkeley ostensibly has rules that are supposed to punish those who attempt to interfere with the free speech rights of those wishing to speak and wishing to hear someone speak, but at the moment they appear very hollow. It’s clear that the groups agitating for violence or speech shutdowns are well known at Berkeley and appear to carry out their tactics of intimidation without fear of consequence. Free speech is not simply the exercise of your own ability to yell at the top of your lungs, but to hear the words of others, for if you can’t hear someone speak, did they ever speak at all? Without the enforcement of measures that impose actual consequences on campus community members who violate the free speech rights of others, the ideals of free speech that Berkeley takes pride in will be little more than memories. 

Nathan Callahan is a Ronald Reagan Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.



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