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Freedom and its limits

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SEPTEMBER 16, 2014

This fall, the campus celebrates the achievements of the 1964 student movement that made Berkeley famous for extending the First Amendment’s definition of free speech to the University of California. In those days, in what was known as the “political neutrality” doctrine, the UC administration sought to preserve the university’s autonomy from external political interference, but did so through a Faustian bargain: The university was kept as free as possible of political interference from Sacramento, but it sacrificed free speech on campus to a degree that was almost certainly unconstitutional.

In the decades before the Free Speech Movement, students were allowed to engage in political advocacy close to campus, but not on it. Faculty members were prohibited from identifying themselves as UC professors when endorsing a political cause. When the FSM challenged this doctrine of “political neutrality,” UC President Clark Kerr was faced with the task of enforcing an untenable set of campus regulations that sought to distinguish between “informing,” which was permissible, and “advocating,” which was not.

On Dec. 8, in an overwhelming 824-115 vote, the Academic Senate sided with the FSM’s central demand — “that the content of speech or advocacy should not be restricted by the university,” except as subject to “time, place and manner regulations” preventing “interference with the normal functions of the University,” meaning that unless you were disrupting classes or interfering with the work of the staff, your speech was protected. The vote affirmed that not only is there no legally defensible boundary between free speech and political advocacy, but that the right to free speech exists especially for the protection of unpopular speech. This is because any abstract limit to free speech on the grounds of politics — or, in today’s parlance, “civility” — always runs the danger of lending itself to the capricious exercise of authority.

After 1964, UC Berkeley became the site of many important student activist movements. These include the Third World Student Strike in 1969 — without which there would be no departments of ethnic studies and African American and African diaspora studies today — and the 1985 anti-apartheid movement, which ensured the university’s divestment from companies doing business in South Africa. In 1964, 1969 and 1985, acts of civil disobedience by students at UC Berkeley not only changed the univeristy but furthered the cause of social justice and racial equality beyond the campus. That legacy of campus activism, built upon the protection of free speech and connected to a passion for social change, is key to what it means to celebrate the FSM. It is also essential to the identity of UC Berkeley as a public university — a university that serves the interests of a public that cannot be equated with the transient interests of government or the self-interests of corporations.

Today, the public university is not what it was. In 1964, the constraints on academic freedom and free speech on campus arose from the problem of external interference from a Cold War-era government that supplied the bulk of UC funding and sought to suppress radicalism on campus. Now, the challenges to academic freedom and free speech on campus are just as likely to come from private donors and rich alumni whom cash-strapped administrations are anxious to cultivate and whose “speech” can weigh more heavily than that of others. There is strong evidence to suggest that this was the case with the blocked appointment of professor Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Powerful donors, offended by the “incivility” of Salaita’s extramural speech, managed to overthrow the normal process by which faculty peer review guarantees standards of scholarly excellence and academic appointments.

In this broader context, Chancellor Dirks’ Sept. 5 statement on “civility” ignited a firestorm in the blogosphere, attracted the attention of officials at the American Association of University Professors and became a national news item. The Council of UC Faculty Associations issued a statement Sept. 12 warning of a new trend among university administrators to invoke “civility” as a limit to acceptable speech. That same day, Chancellor Dirks clarified that while civility on this campus should in no way be regarded as a constraint on the freedom of speech, we should consider how the values underlying civility and free speech can exist in tension with one another. What does this all mean?

At the very least, this recent example of public debate about the force of administrative speech — and the power of debate to affect it — has shown that the preservation of academic freedom and free speech depends on vigorous engagement by all members of the university. Today’s context for campus debate involves a tension not just between “civility” and free speech in a fractious political world. More broadly, it involves a tension between the values of democracy and the forces of privatization.

Placing the present character of the public university in historical perspective are those 1960s alumni whom we are honoring, in this case, for contributions not to financial purposes but to UC Berkeley’s reputation for advancing political freedom and social justice. There is surely no better time and place than this fall at UC Berkeley for having a robust debate about freedom and its limits in today’s public university.

The Berkeley Faculty Association welcomes everyone to two events it has organized to provide perspective and facilitate debate: “The New Normal: What Does it Mean to Work at UC Today?” on Sept. 30 at 5 p.m. in 300 Wheeler and “The Operation of the Machine: UC Then and Now” on Oct. 1 at 1:30 pm in 315 Wheeler.

The Berkeley Faculty Association is a representative of the Berkeley faculty.

Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter: @dailycalopinion.

SEPTEMBER 16, 2014