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Less free speech today than in 1964

Rich Muller, professor emeritus of physics | December 10, 2009

In a deep sense, the Free Speech Movement (FSM) was a failure. Yes, we have the ability to organize political events on campus.  But we seem to have lost the culture of true free speech.  Back in 1964 we could invite anyone to speak on campus — even a Nazi or a Ku Klux Klan member.  Students would listen, and then during the discussion period they would ask the penetrating questions that the speaker could not answer.  They would make the incisive comments that would cause the speaker to demonstrate to all in the audience whether or not their approach made any sense.

[flv:http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2009/12/images/fsm1.flv http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2009/12/images/fsm1.jpg 450 337]Rich Muller, attempting to speak at the Dec. 2 Free Speech Movement
commemoration event

We can no longer invite a Nazi.  We can’t even invite a Republican.  He would be hooted down, by students who believe that freedom of speech includes the right — maybe even the responsibility — to assure that ideas they oppose will not be heard.  Imagine what would happen if Condoleza Rice were invited to speak on campus.  A group of students would do their best to assure that none of her words could get through.  They would consider it to be a victory if she was forced to leave, and the event got a large amount of TV and other media coverage.

Such students are confusing liberty with freedom.

A recent example was the organized event to talk about the FSM that took place on Sproul Hall last week.  A group of students decided, before listening, that what we had to say was worthless.  Although our group had applied for the time, organized the event, and obtained use of a microphone and loudspeaker, the student group decided to drown us out.  They brought their own loudspeakers, and at noon, when we were scheduled to start, they announced loudly that the FSM meeting had been cancelled — and instead there would be a presentation about current issues.

Eventually they let us to speak, on their terms.  By the time I was allowed to speak, most of the potential audience had left.  Then my microphone was cut off, and one of the students started shouting a chant through a loudspeaker that prevented me from going on.  Later he said that he didn’t know I wasn’t finished.  But his belief in his right to bring his own loudspeaker and take control of the proceedings by force is what led to the problem.  He didn’t feel he had to check with us — because aggressive bullying is a proper way to proceed (he must have assumed) when you feel strongly that you are in the right.

They used such aggression and force to cancel our freedom of speech. True, they regarded their issues as more important than ours.  But if they had studied history they would realize that such an argument has always been the excuse to cancel freedom of speech.

What can we do?  We must not be tolerant of bullies.  We can’t ignore them, or smile hopelessly and allow them to have their way.  I’m sure you can think of examples in the past where bullies just increased their power until they were no longer stoppable.

We are a university.  We must put freedom of ideas above everything else.  We must relearn how to listen, how to be tolerant of the free speech of others.  We must nurture and develop and encourage freedom of speech, and set an example that the rest of our society will follow.  Exactly the opposite is happening on the Berkeley campus on that day, and I am deeply saddened.