Saturday, August 26, 2017

Free Speech at UC-Berkeley

Anyone who has spent much time around the UC-Berkeley campus the last ten years will likely find it hard to believe that there is massive suppression of dissent, which is what conservatives have been trying to claim for years now. And gullible liberal commentators like Conor Fridersdorf have beaten the same drum, largely accepting the conservative provocateurs' version with little critical insight, e.g., UC Berkeley Declares Itself Unsafe for Ann Coulter The Atlantic 04/20/2017.

In the real world, the issues at Berkeley have largely revolved around legitimate safety concerns around speeches by particularly controversial characters, like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos was a hot star on the far right, despite being openly gay, until he slipped up and suggested in a podcast interview that he might approve of adults having sex with underage boys. (Mary Emily O'Hara, Yiannopoulos Quits Breitbart, Apologizes for Uproar Over Year-Old Comments NBC News 02/21/2017) Since that became public, his free speech hasn't been nearly as much in demand from his former fans, nor do they seem so eager to have him as a symbol for the alt-right movement. The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) cancelled a scheduled appearance by him at their conference earlier this year. A brief search didn't turn up any condemnations of CPAC from Friedersdorf over that cancellation.

Let's give him credit, though. After thinking about it long and hard, Fridersdorf did realize that, golly, an increasing number of conservatives have been wildly intolerant and insufferably nasty for, well, a long time. (What Critiques of 'Smug Liberals' Miss The Atlantic 05/03/2017)

University administrator public and private are highly attuned to publicity embarrassments. Those can damage "development" efforts (fundraising).

So it's no surprise to see current UC-Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ putting out a statement on free speech that shows every sign of having been tortured into existence via innumerable reviews by committees and lawyers. And probably committees of lawyers, Chancellor Christ: Free speech is who we are UC-Berkeley website 08/23/2017:
The law is very clear: Public institutions like UC Berkeley must permit speakers invited in accordance with campus policies to speak, without discrimination in regard to point of view. ...

But the most powerful argument for free speech is not one of legal constraint — that we’re required to allow it — but of value. The public expression of many sharply divergent points of view is fundamental both to our democracy and to our mission as a university. The philosophical justification underlying free speech, most powerfully articulated by John Stuart Mill in his book On Liberty, rests on two basic assumptions. The first is that truth is of such power that it will always ultimately prevail; any abridgement of argument therefore compromises the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. The second is an extreme skepticism about the right of any authority to determine which opinions are noxious or abhorrent. Once you embark on the path to censorship, you make your own speech vulnerable to it.
I'm trying to picture the conjured spirit of John Stuart Mill sitting at a conference table with University lawyers who would probably ban Abraham Lincoln from speaking on campus if they thought it might cause some legal inconvenience.

If they asked the spectral Mill if he thought it was wrong to postpone a speech when hooligans showed up throwing Molotov cocktails, which is why the first speech was cancelled, he might have pointed them to this passage in On Liberty: "Nevertheless, if a public authority, or even a private person, sees any one evidently preparing to commit a crime, they are not bound to look on inactive until the crime is committed, but may interfere to prevent it. If poisons were never bought or used for any purpose except the commission of murder, it would be right to prohibit their manufacture and sale."

Or this one: "If either a public officer or any one else saw a person attempting to cross a bridge which had been ascertained to be unsafe, and there were no time to warn him of his danger, they might seize him and turn him back, without any real infringement of his liberty; for liberty consists in doing what one desires, and he does not desire to fall into the river." University authorities postponing a speech due to imminent danger of violence due to, you know, violence already happening, probably fits into that condition. It may not speak well of the "black-box" protesters that were, after all, violating the law. But Mills would likely have held back on the finger-wagging at the University officials.

Mill would probably agree with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' opinion in Schenck v. United States (1919), "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." Whether Mill would agree to its application in Schenck is another question. Mill's version:

... men should be free to act upon their opinions—to carry these out in their lives, without hindrance, either physical or moral, from their fellow-men, so long as it is at their own risk and peril. This last proviso is of course indispensable. No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.
Chancellor Carol Christ statement continues:

This September, Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos have both been invited by student groups to speak at Berkeley. The university has the responsibility to provide safety and security for its community and guests, and we will invest the necessary resources to achieve that goal. If you choose to protest, do so peacefully. That is your right, and we will defend it with vigor. We will not tolerate violence, and we will hold anyone accountable who engages in it.

We will have many opportunities this year to come together as a Berkeley community over the issue of free speech; it will be a free speech year. We have already planned a student panel, a faculty panel and several book talks. Bridge USA and the Center for New Media will hold a day-long conference on Oct. 5; PEN, the international writers’ organization, will hold a free speech convening in Berkeley on Oct. 23. We are planning a series in which people with sharply divergent points of view will meet for a moderated discussion. Free speech is our legacy, and we have the power once more to shape this narrative.
We'll see if those September events with Shapiro and Yiannopoulos turn into another shitshow.

I will note that the phrase "That is your right" has taken on the connotation of "That is your right, you contemptible motherf*****s." But let's give the Chancellor the benefit of the doubt here.

But now that Yiannopoulos has fallen from alt-right grace, I won't be in the least surprised if his next appearance at Berkeley brings condemnations from the alt-right that UC-Berkeley is promoting pedophilia and child rape. That's just how they roll. And Conor Fridersdorf will probably find a way to say that it all proves that universities are full of hypocritical Mean Libruls.

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