Karen Kim hangs Twitter icons in a commemoration of the 1964 Free Speech Movement at UC-Berkeley.(Photo: Ben Margot, AP)
The crowd at the Brava Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District on a recent Saturday night filled no more than two-thirds of the seats. My 22-year-old daughter, a law student at the University of California-Berkeley, was the youngest member of the audience by a good 30 years. The predominant hair color was gray, trending white.
My daughter, wife and I were there for the premier performance of FSM, a 50th anniversary celebration of the Free Speech Movement, the student-led challenge of a Berkeley administrative ban on campus political activity that captivated the nation during the fall of 1964. Weeks of demonstrations and sit-ins culminated in hundreds of arrests, but also in a concession to students that they had the right to political speech on campus.
Watching FSM unfold reminded me that what matters is what you learn after you know it all. Fifty years ago, as a young Air Force airman, I wrote a long letter to my hometown weekly newspaper decrying the tactics of the Berkeley students and their rumored communist inspirations, and singling out their leader, Mario Savio, for particular scorn.
Time and experience
That was before 40-plus years as a journalist and lecturer at four major universities taught me how precious the First Amendment is, and how endangered it has become. Nowhere is this more evident than on college campuses. Free-speech advocates might have won the battle of Berkeley 50 years ago, but they’ve been losing the war on campuses for decades.
Students grow up today with the Internet, which embodies free speech sometimes despicable speech in blogs and social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. But too few of them have a sense of history or seem concerned about what’s going on around them, especially that hundreds of colleges have imposed speech codes or set up absurd “free speech zones” in obscure corners of the campus.
You’d think that Berkeley, with its storied history, would be an exception, but it’s not. While thousands of students jammed Sproul Plaza in 1964, a ceremony this month kicking off a remembrance of that fall’s events drew only about 300 people to the same spot.
Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks set the tone earlier by reminding students and faculty by e-mail that “we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility.” After an uproar among faculty, Dirks issued what some called a mea culpa, in which he downplayed the civility angle and called for “real engagement on divisive issues.”
“Civility,” “respect” and “courteousness” are elitist code words meaning that offending anyone will not be tolerated in the context of free expression. But where does the Constitution guarantee freedom from being offended? For example, I am rarely not offended by something I see or read when I turn on the television or go online. Does that mean I’d like to live in an environment where no one would be permitted to offend me? No, that’s what off-buttons are for.
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Free speech threat 50 years later: Column