Fifty years ago this fall, the Free Speech Movement was born at the University of California-Berkeley. Rebelling against strict rules barring political speech on campus, thousands of students began a series of protests. In December 1964, after more than 700 students were arrested during an occupation of the administration building, there was a turning point. The UC Berkeley Academic Senate lopsidedly endorsed the argument that students speech rights should be no different on or off campus.
There would be years more squabbling about what was allowed at Berkeley. But gradually the concept of campus as a place where vigorous debate and dissent was not just accepted but championed took hold at American universities.
Now we are witnessing a growing phenomenon in which campus protests are used to try to prevent debate. Across the nation, commencement speakers have been uninvited or have backed away from their commitments after facing intense criticism from groups of students and some professors.
The most notable example came at Rutgers, where former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was deemed non grata over the Bush administrations use of torture and its launching of the Iraq War.
This reduces the debate over national security to a cartoon. Hillary Clinton was among the Senate Democrats who backed the war. And President Barack Obama may have banned enhanced interrogations, but hes ramped up a drone killing program that has sparked international anger. Is assassination less morally objectionable than torture?
But Rutgers students dont have to worry about any such complexity. Theyve got their villain.
The villain at Haverford College was former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, whom students said should not be allowed to speak until he apologized (yet again) for how he responded to a campus Occupy protest in 2011 and supported reparations for those protesters. Birgeneau declined their demands but chose not speak.
Thankfully, another speaker at Haverfords weekend ceremonies pointed out the arrogance of the students. They should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counterarguments, said former Princeton President William G. Bowen.
Fifty years ago, this goal of genuine discussion was what led Berkeley students to demand the right to freely discuss racial discrimination, the growing U.S. involvement in Vietnam and more. Now their figurative grandchildren have a different point of view: Every controversial question has only one answer. You have absolutely nothing to learn from people whose opinions you dislike, is the formulation offered by Yale Law School professor Stephen E. Carter.
This is not progress.
Sad anniversary for Free Speech Movement