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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.

Comments to “Less free speech today than in 1964

  1. This is a late- or very very late – comment, but I decided to post anyway.

    Prof.Muller, I have always been of this view, that we have less freedom of speech now-a-days than before. I completely agree with you.

    I was calculating how much walking I would have to do to lose one pound of fat. It turns out I would have to walk 2.2miles in 35min at 3.7 mph 47 times in a week! I just wondered if there was any other way. I Googled and found your “The Physics diet”. I have Masters in Physics, though long back and haven’t used much of it recently and was curious to know what that could be. I thoroughly enjoyed your article/paper.Thankyou.

    I came to this site after searching for you on Google, to read more writings by you and to learn things from a Physicist point of view. Why such a simple thing has been overcomplicated, do this to lose an ounce of fat etc etc etc? I wonder why the health professionals don’t tell us “just eat less!?”. Perhaps because of the health and safety laws and the disclaimer policies.

    I look forward to read more articles from you.

  2. I strongly agree with the professor. I saw this first hand when I was chatting with some fellow UC students and alumni. I thought it would be a great idea for Sarah Palin to stop at Berkeley during her book tour. I was amazed at the opposition. Call me old fashion, but I am still under the assumption that if one chooses to they can learn something from anyone. Recently I have found myself describing Berkeley as narrow-minded.

  3. It is obvious that some students truly appreciate the collective opinions of a misled mob, “It might not be as subtle or organized or rational as you would have hoped, but if we’re talking collective consciousness here, the students who took Wheeler did you, me, and the Chancellor a very large favor by raising national awareness for all the crap that California is trying to figure out right now.” There is no favor that was done for Professor Rich Muller, the Chancellor, or the majority of the Cal student body by the students, and non-students, that interfered with the educational processes during this semester. Your “collective consciousness” became a hindrance to my education the moment one of your fellow thugs pulled the fire alarm in the building that I had a class in.

    In addition you show how hyper-competitive you really are by, “They kind of totally one-upped you, and that’s the most likely reason for why they didn’t really give a hoot about making sure you finished your sentence (the content of which you didn’t make apparent, so that might have had something to do with it as well).” The event that the Professor was explaining was NOT a competition. Also, the “reason for why they didn’t really give a hoot about making sure you finished your sentence” comment is no more than an excuse for a childish tantrum to control who can play in a playground; only one group apparently. In other words, the person/group that is allowed to speak is apparently only one group, therefore the Professor’s opinion that they were bullies was correct because bullies do “one-upped” others in the playground. Now let’s take a closer look at your view that you mention as, “totally one-upped you”. The NAZIs one-upped every individual and group that they refused to allow to finish their sentences. Mussolini made certain that his competitors could not finish their sentences/publications in order that their point could not be completed and that the audience would not be able to be converted away from his hegemonic control.

    The following quote is classic, “But in a sense, those students earned the right to narrate the conversation because they stayed up all night in Wheeler and slept on the ground and stood in the rain and yelled…” You’re kidding right? Freedom of Speech was not earned by people who voluntarily stood in the rain, voluntarily pulled fire alarms, or voluntarily slept on the ground. Boy Scouts can do as much but that is not the reason why Freedom of Speech exists in this country. The FOS movement has real juridical history! In addition, you mentioned, “the right to narrate”. Hitler had the right to narrate, because his Brown Shirt thugs made certain that everywhere he went the center stage was taken from someone else and given to him. GET THIS STRAIGHT NOW, THERE IS NO SUCH RIGHT AS THE RIGHT TO NARRATE!!! WHERE IN THE CONSTITUTION DID YOU FIND THAT? ARE YOU IMAGENING THINGS?

    What you have done in your comment is nothing less than to make a very long soft worded excuse for hyper-competitive aggression commonly referred to as a takeover.

    Professor Mueller is correct.

    • Mr. Montes,
      The phrase “one of your fellow thugs” conveys, in five words, the type of assumptions you made in order to respond in the way that you did. I did not support the acts of symbolic hostility that accompanied the protest’s sentiments. What you’re getting at seems to be a useful but limiting dichotomy: the legitimacy of anger versus the anger that often accompanies a thirst for legitimacy. However, the examples you use to illustrate such a dichotomy juxtapose two approaches to social change that are antithetical, and it seems to me that the way you go about making your point is a bit crude, in all senses of the word.
      The judicial proceedings of the FOS Movement could not have been as significant as you make them appear if a group of individuals with real, live ideas had not decided to obtain the public’s attention. Reasons for this are historically complex, as are the reasons for the distaste that exists today for recent events concerning the California state budget.
      I’d like to think that my response was soft worded, so thanks. The extent to which a response produces more knowledge about the speaker than about the content of their ideas speaks to their effective use of language. Thanks for reminding me that we are all, as thinkers, held responsible for the way we use words. And rightfully so.
      Meggie

  4. Thank you professor for your comments and speech. I’m concerned that for certain groups at Berkeley, intellectualism has been replaced with bigotry. It seems that being more liberal automatically makes these students more knowledgeable on the issues. My hope is just that these students are in the early stages of their education, where their critical thinking is outweighed by their naive fanaticism. However, I think it’s Berkeley’s obligation to shape them into open-minded, well-spoken individuals by the time they graduate. As a graduate student, I don’t have enough educational experience to say if that is the case. If it isn’t, then we (California) seriously need to reconsider the level of individual mentorship an undergraduate receives at Berkeley, and potentially a restructuring of this large university model.

  5. Professor, you are quite accurate. In order to have an exchange of ideas and critiques we must allow all people to state their opinion and then be challenged by others. We should have a back and forth reasoned argument over the merits of the position. It seems many students have forgotten what it’s like to be critical and instead want to silence free speech.How is that rationale? Keep up the fight!

  6. I appreciate the addition of the video of Professor Muller’s comments. It now seems the actual content of his comments at the event in question were originally based in type of criticism found in his blog entry. I find this to be an interesting detail because it indicates that the professor’s interpretation of the recent free speech on campus existed prior to the student response he received as a result of his comments. I would like to express my respect for the sincerity of his opinion as not an act of reactivity but as a genuine distaste for “bullies” that many of us encounter in the quest for intellectual influence.

  7. Rich,
    I love your point. I agree that free speech has changed its ethos, perhaps in favor of political correctness. I think that’s the source of our stuffy, homogeneous discussions, and the lack thereof on uncomfortable subjects like “equal opportunity” admissions.

    I personally attended a debate at Cal in which two very conservative “debaters” agreed that Muslims should not immigrate to the US. Rather than speaking up to challenge their assumptions, many of my peers simply walked out in disgust. Maybe leaving the discussion makes a good statement, but its not the accountable action in my book. I completely agree that diplomacy and respect are virtues, if for no better reason than they allow one to know their enemy.

    Lastly, I’ll say that it has become increasingly difficult to play devil’s advocate in my generation. Perhaps that’s why I squeal with such delight at something as impolite as South Park, which makes irreverent jokes about race, gender, trends, and mindsets, but always ultimately sides with moral, open-minded, and sensible characters. I recommend that you watch an episode or two. Maybe you will catch a glimpse of your own notion of free speech there. (To start, try episode 408- “Chef Goes Nanners” about race, 701- “South Park is Gay” about metrosexuality, or 1303- “Margaritaville” about the recession).

    Best,
    -Kate

  8. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU Prof. Muller!

    Efforts to promote racial diversity have only been exceeded in intensity and zeal by the effort to diminish diversity of thought. As someone who recognizes the validity of perspectives which extend across the political and ideological spectrum, my experience here at Berkeley has been one of enormous intellectual deprivation.

    Students have a right to be exposed to a diverse set of perspectives. Communist, Fascist, Republican, Democrat, Theist, Atheist – being informed of these views enables us to distinguish ON OUR OWN the merits of each. And so it is criminal that a uniquely left-wing ideological hegemony has prevailed on this campus, all while the administration and professorship snicker and regard this crime as a great success for the cause of “progressivism”.

  9. I also believe that the culture of free speech is distinctly different these days. It is probably harder to come upon dialogue on campus that is both honest and productive than it was in the 1960s. I came to Berkeley expecting a kind of zeal for intellect and literacy in conversational rhetoric that didn’t necessarily greet me at the door. But that isn’t to say I didn’t eventually find it.

    I suppose I would like to start with a question. What prompted your desire for a dialogue about the protest events a few weeks ago? Surely, you would not have found yourself standing with an opinion at the ready if that group of students hadn’t found it within themselves to initiate a real public conversation. Now the extent to which we can call a protest a public conversation is something I’d like to address as well, but ultimately, I believe you’re severely underestimating those students productivity in dialogue. There were several helicopters in the sky circling the events on campus for the entire East Bay to see; the cries of the crowd surrounding Wheeler drowned out the waves of noise that floated down the hill from the Big Game bonfire at the Greek Theatre. That day, the power of the Berkeley intellect came together (for a variety of reasons that we could analyze to death, but shouldn’t). I see the sort of nostalgia that you espouse in your comments above as the engine of the events that occurred on campus that day. Hence, the root of my confusion with your comments: if, finally, a massive population of students found themselves dedicating their Friday afternoons to standing in the rain and participating in a collective uproar for the importance of public education, then why the disillusionment, Professor Muller?

    With all due respect, I’d like to attempt to answer my own question, because I’m a psychology major and like to do rather silly things like that. I think the foundation of your vexation would be that you felt you had a useful contribution to that initiated dialogue, and felt personally deprived of your right to express this contribution. I have felt this way a lot since I came to Berkeley, because there are a lot of high-powered people here that want to get their ideas out there. But in a sense, those students earned the right to narrate the conversation because they stayed up all night in Wheeler and slept on the ground and stood in the rain and yelled and underwent immense criticism from professors that they respect more than anyone. They kind of totally one-upped you, and that’s the most likely reason for why they didn’t really give a hoot about making sure you finished your sentence (the content of which you didn’t make apparent, so that might have had something to do with it as well).

    Here’s where I’ll address the extent to which the protests initiated a real public conversation. You said: “We must nurture and develop and encourage freedom of speech, and set an example that the rest of our society will follow.” If I’m not mistaken, a massive, societally conscious group of Berkeley students and community members that’s large enough to elicit a spot on CNN (http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/11/20/california.tuition.protests/) is probably one of the best examples we can set for people such as yourself, and many others around the nation, wondering when young people will start to care about the world again. It might not be as subtle or organized or rational as you would have hoped, but if we’re talking collective consciousness here, the students who took Wheeler did you, me, and the Chancellor a very large favor by raising national awareness for all the crap that California is trying to figure out right now.

    Really quickly (this is turning out to be longer than I thought it would be, apologies): You said “But if they had studied history they would realize that [regarding their issues as more important than ours] has always been the excuse to cancel freedom of speech.” I think I speak for a lot of Civil Rights activists here when I say that the relevance of this statement is severely problematic with regards to the argument you’re trying to make. I really wish I knew the content of your intended argument at the event at which you spoke and wonder why you didn’t include this in your statements.

    I’d also like to respond to the following statements: “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. ”

    I’ve been enrolled in Political Science 179 for the past 2 semesters. It’s a colloquium on current issues in political science. It is, in all likelihood, one of the most popular classes on campus (and, funnily enough, it fills a good portion of Wheeler Auditorium each week). Its also quite a popular podcast, perhaps you should check it out. I don’t know about Nazis, but there have been a fair share of Republicans, religious leaders, and other speakers with potentially problematic or controversial views. I would love to give you a list of these people, but I have a paper to write so you’ll just have to google that yourself. The point is, there isn’t ever any hooting or disrespect towards these speakers. You might want to talk to the Professor, Alan Ross about this. Just last week, I had a hard time sitting still in my seat when Ward Connerly said that he opposed discrimination prevention and an attention to racial equality in UC Admissions policies because it makes race too relevant in the body politic. If you don’t already know or couldn’t guess, dear Ward is a Republican with a lot of Libertarian ideas. I’m a progressive with a lot of 3rd wave feminist ideas. It was recipe for disaster. All I could think about was intersectionality (feel free to wikipedia that). I didn’t hoot though, I actually didn’t say anything. I sat my seat and wrote my thoughts down. And even though pretty much every student response that was actually directed, outloud, at Connerly (the general format of the class is a short discussion following the lecture), implied that his views were not shared by the responder, it was a peaceful, and dare I say, productive conversation. I am personally offended that you would try to portray our student body in such a disparaging light. I will seriously let you sit by me at a few of the PS179 lectures next semester so that you might have a chance at restoring your faith in our articulate, calm, and collected student body.

    As a professor, you have a powerful opinion with regards to your portrayals of the students and events here. Please be careful with that power.

    Since you are a physics professor, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes.
    “You have that one basic string, but it can vibrate in many ways. But we’re trying to get a lot of particles because experimental physicists have discovered a lot of particles.”
    Edward Witten

    I hope you aren’t truly saddened Professor Muller. Protests and Free Speech are particles too. Try approaching them in that way. I recommend the book Born To Be Good by Dacher Keltner for your sadness concerning what I saw as a Great reason for optimism. (Its a very rational approach to positive emotion that I think you might find profoundly useful.)

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