Monday, May 1, 2017

UC Berkeley and Free Speech, Redux

So, it was the first Giants game of the year for me, and we made it a grandmaster attendance game with besties David, Michael, and Larry. Bound to be lots of conversation, and sure enough it started right in the car as we set out. For some reason I seemed even more declarative than usual, although that's a pretty high standard to meet. First topic: the Milo Yiannopoulos disruption ( and Ann Coulter challenge to free speech at the home of the Free Speech Movement.

I had seen the Coulter brouhaha from afar, since Ann and I were having a great time traveling in Europe. I had seen on Facebook that Bob Reich had condemned Cal's cancellation of the Coulter event and their attempt to reschedule it for the following week at a much more disadvantageous time. Let people listen to her idiocies, he said. Later, he relented, saying the new time was fine. I disagreed, since the new time looked like it was like consigning them to an outback court, but since I was traveling, I probably let my natural suspicion of University actions sway my view. All bureaucracies are pretty stupid, and university bureaucracies are particularly so. (I'm currently dealing with my Harvard Medical School 50th reunion, and although the “opportunities to donate” messages come through regularly, persistently, and cliché-edly, they cannot respond to a simple request to schedule times and places for attendees simply to get together and talk to each other, while doing so would no doubt foster good will and boost contributions – stupid educational bureaucracy, but I repeat myself.)

Anyway, I thought Cal had blown it, again. Michael disagreed; he thought the provocations were real, that it was a set up, especially obvious since the young Republicans who had announced the schedule hadn't even had a room committed to them for the event. Right, I said, of course. But it's the tone. Cal administrators were mealy-mouthed and defensive; they couldn't make a proactive case, they couldn't take it to the opposition, they couldn't seize the initiative and put the provocateurs on the defensive. We agreed to disagree, although David supported me and Larry was non-committal. But it stayed with me and I went home and wrote what I think they should have said, in the tone they should have said it.

Then I researched it a little, since I had been away and hadn't read everything that came out, and found that they had actually made a statement that had some elements of what I wrote, although naturally not as good, and not really with the tone that was required – too whiny, too much “look at what those meanies are doing to us!” I wrote Michael and said that I now thought he was right. He wrote me back and said that he had been talking to some others, and they were also critical of Cal administrators, so he now agrees with my original position. OK – I'll take it! I am now back to my original position, too.

Then today in the WSJ I read about the University of Chicago's position in 2015: “'It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.'” You bet!

So, here's what I wrote that is what I thought a good administration with leadership skills could have written.

The University of California at Berkeley, and indeed the city of Berkeley, are the proud and famous inheritors of the spirit of the Free Speech Movement. The FSM changed the behavior and beliefs of UCB forever; we have evolved from trying to direct students to trying to enable the university community to enjoy the benefits of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States to the fullest. We firmly believe that everyone in the University community deserves the right to be heard, and the right to invite viewpoints from the outside to be heard. We will never budge from our commitment to the First Amendment.

At the same time, we are just as firmly committed to keeping violence in any form away from our University community. We will not budge from our commitment to keep our community safe from bodily harm and property harm, come what may.

Recently, we have been challenged to maintain both these commitments. Some elements from both within our university community, and from outside as well, have conspired to threaten and actually to commit violence as a way of curtailing free speech. Seeing our dilemma, some elements have then pursued provocateur agendas, to portray us as not enabling free speech fully. Indeed, this seems to have been exactly the scenario with the latest Ann Coulter incident.

It is clear that when a speaker may be an incendiary force, we are challenged to maintain order and safety. In such a circumstance, we need to have timely notice of the proposed events. It is our responsibility not to use this requirement to fetter free speech, to use safety as a pretext to curtail free speech. We are totally committed not to be duplicitous in our citing safety concerns with a secret agenda of curtailing free speech.

In this Coulter case, the campus group gave the University scant notice about the proposed schedule. They simply scheduled the talk without even having any speaking place committed to them. They did not seek our cooperation at all in providing a place and time and protective resources for this speaker. We would certainly honor our pledge to provide free speech opportunity if we were given the opportunity. Instead, we have reasons to believe that several of the agents involved in this proposed talk worked together to place the University in a trap of seeming to renege on its mission of providing free speech.

Let us restate our commitment: When a duly authorized unit of the University wants to hold a meeting and/or invite a speaker, we at the University will work with that unit to provide a time and place and security to ensure that free speech is exercised. We will not use the necessity of securing space and security to consign the speaker or meeting to unpopular times or spaces as a pretext for compromising free speech.

But we will also not allow ourselves to be set up by malign forces to appear to be taking sides in the exercise of free speech. That is why we are speaking out now, recommitting ourselves to our responsibility, and also letting any and all know: ensuring both free speech and safety from violence can sometimes take management, and we will assert our responsibility to manage our grounds and our time to ensure both objectives.

We could generalize the discussion to Middlebury and other scandalous suppression of free speech on campus and the contentions of the ignorant left that “they have the freedom to speak and we have the freedom to stop them,” but maybe I should just leave it there with what I wrote. Universities need to stand up and be counted, and it is a problem that we have bureaucratic administrations with few real leaders, but rather those committed to raising money, not ruffling feathers, pleasing disparate constituencies, and keeping their jobs. Such is life, and such are bureaucracies.

And as a side note, it was a beautiful and warm night at the ballpark, So, the Giants won, which was a treat, although they still have the third worst record in the majors as I write, and I am looking at the games I have in the future and wondering how many of them will take place before they are mathematically eliminated.

Well, we've have some good years.

Budd Shenkin

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