Interviews with UC Berkeley community members revealed a diversity of perspectives regarding what exactly freedom of speech means to campus students and faculty alike.
Second-year jurisprudence and social policy doctoral candidate Rubí Gonzales offered the legal definition of freedom of speech as a “protected human right that allows individuals to express themselves without government interference or regulation.”
“Freedom of expression is the foundation of a vibrant democracy, without which other fundamental rights might not exist,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales reflected on the importance of both the First and Fifth Amendments’ rights: freedom of speech and the right to remain silent. Gonzales emphasized the importance of amplifying all voices, particularly students from marginalized communities.
Associate professor of history and public policy and co-director of the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley Daniel Sargent expanded on this definition by juxtaposing freedom of speech with academic freedom.
“I think academic freedom has to do with freedom of inquiry as it relates to the key research and teaching of the university, so it’s different,” Sargent said. “It’s a professional standard rather than a set of constitutional protections that apply to everybody everywhere.”
Sargent attributes much of UC Berkeley’s success in offering such a diverse array of speaker events to the leadership of Chancellor Carol Christ and UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky – “robust, resolute defender(s) of intellectual freedom” – through security operations and public statements, respectively.
Sargent emphasized that campus’s adamant support of free speech is a fairly contemporary result of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s.
“The Free Speech Movement revolts against this idea of the university as an institution that exercises its right to local parentis,” Sargent said. “What Mario Savio and the others leaders of the Free Speech Movement advocate for and to a degree realize is a different vision of the university, that of an unfettered marketplace for ideas.”
Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement made it possible for student organizations to both organize and host free speaker events with minimal restrictions, Sargent noted.
Sargent also highlighted the importance of peer review and “the responsible self regulation of the university by the university” rather than punitive restrictions by the university.
Global studies lecturer and senior researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies Peter Bartu emphasized his commitment to maintaining a respectful environment while also protecting the “space in the classroom to stumble and fall a bit.” Bartu holds a comparable view on speaker events.
“When guest speakers come that have these really strong views, then the campus opens itself up to them,” Bartu said. “I feel very strongly about gun control, for example, from my own background and experience. And there have been guest speakers who come to speak in favor of individual access to the right to bear arms and so forth. Well, I exercise my right to not attend that event. I live a great life and sleep well as a consequence. And people should also be able to apply that approach, too.”
Junior transfer Osvaldo Granados reflected that despite only having been a student since this past fall, he has witnessed campus’s ongoing support of free speech.
Granados found the recent hosting of Matt Walsh, a right-wing American columnist and commentator, to be a demonstration of this principle.
“While I strongly disagree with all the views conveyed by Matt Walsh, I understand that he was within UC Berkeley’s policy and liberty to exercise his First Amendment right to share his personal beliefs on campus,” Granados said. “And as such, he was permitted to present at UC Berkeley despite the criticism.”
However, senior economics student Seena Zabihi had an entirely different experience. At the 2019 Ann Coulter event, Zabihi recalled a “massive wall of protestors” refusing to let anyone in or out with riot police lining Wheeler Hall.
The event was ultimately carried out in reduced capacity, leaving hundreds of students with pre-purchased tickets like Zabihi outside.
“I was pretty disappointed by this,” Zabihi said. “The protestors were aggressive and emotional, and my pleas that I was a leftist who wanted to go in there and ask adversarial questions fell entirely on deaf ears. To my knowledge, most of them weren’t even UC Berkeley students.”
Although Coulter was able to proceed with her event, similar political polarization and tensions on campus are anticipated to potentially resurge with the upcoming federal election, according to Bartu.
Although he did not want to predict particular incidents, Sargent did emphasize that Californians are citizens of the state regardless of political perspectives. Considering that UC Berkeley is a public school, Sargent noted the importance of intellectual diversity that encourages free speech for all, despite campus’s primarily left-leaning faculty and student body.
“We’re not an institution detached from the society that sustains us devoted entirely to the pursuit of truth. We’re also devoted to a variety of social purposes,” Sargent said. “That given, I think we do have a responsibility to represent something of the ideological and partisan diversity of the state, even perhaps the nation state, that supports us.”