Teachable Moment at Berkeley after Violence!

Dear Commons Community,

Wednesday night’s violence at the University of California, Berkeley, has been followed by a good deal of soul searching at the campus over the issue of free speech. As reported in the New York Times:

“Fires burned in the cradle of free speech. Furious at a lecture organized on campus, demonstrators wearing ninja-like outfits smashed windows, threw rocks at the police and stormed a building. The speech? The university called it off.

Protest has been synonymous with the University of California, Berkeley, from the earliest days of the free speech movement, when students fought to expand political expression on campus beginning in 1964. Those protests would set off student activism movements that roiled campuses across the country throughout the 1960s. Since then, countless demonstrators have flocked to Sproul Plaza each day to have their voices heard on issues from civil rights and apartheid to Israel, tuition costs and more.

But now the university is under siege for canceling a speech by the incendiary right-wing writer Milo Yiannopoulos and words like intolerance, long used by the left, are being used by critics to condemn the protests on Wednesday night that ultimately prevented Mr. Yiannopoulos from speaking.

Naweed Tahmas, a junior who is a member of the Berkeley College Republicans, the group that invited Mr. Yiannopoulos to campus, said the cancellation had made him more determined to fight for freedom of speech on campus.

“I’m tired of getting silenced, as many conservative students are,” he said. “If we support freedom of speech, we should support all speech including what they consider hate speech.”

When the event was canceled, the Republican student group reacted by writing on their Facebook page, “the Free Speech Movement is dead.”

More than 100 faculty members signed a letter opposing the visit by Mr. Yiannopoulos in recent weeks. “We support robust debate, but we cannot abide by harassment, slander, defamation, and hate speech,” they wrote.

On Thursday, heated arguments broke out at Sproul Plaza between students who said Mr. Yiannopoulos — a provocateur editor at Breitbart News who is known for his attacks on political correctness and offensive, racially-charged writing — was too inflammatory to be invited to campus and those who argued that he should have been allowed to speak.

The university made it clear they believed the people who resorted to violence on Wednesday night — a group, clad in black clothing and carrying sticks — had come from outside the campus. The university estimated on Thursday that the rioting had caused around $100,000 in damage.

Whatever the origins of the violent mob, the university was and remains divided over the meaning of free speech at a time of national political tumult.

“I think we need to have a serious conversation about protests. This is going to be a big part of our lives for the next four years,” said Kirsten Pickering, a graduate student at the university. She and others described the violence as a “potential teachable moment.”

The tensions in the country have surely been ratcheted up during the past year with the violence and incendiary language heard during the presidential election and recent positions taken by President Trump.  However, I come down on the side of free speech and that all views should be heard – left, right, and in between.


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