The Strange (and Tortured) Legacy of “Free Speech”

Photo by Charlie Nguyen | CC BY 2.0

It has recently come to my attention that new Chancellor Carol Christ at the University of California, Berkeley, my alma mater, has unveiled ambitious plans for a “Free Speech Year” — a magnanimous gesture toward the Free Speech Movement (FSM) of 1964-65, an iconic moment in sixties radicalism.  Christ’s plans (essentially hopes) come at a time when a new cycle of right-wing speakers is slated for the fall, raising prospects of campus violence surpassing the chaos of February and May when Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter were scheduled to appear, then cancelled.  Those plans also come at a time of recurrent left-right street combat in Berkeley.

Christ announced that the university would sponsor “point-counterpoint” panels to demonstrate how strongly opposed political views can be exchanged in a peaceful, respectful setting.  Other events include workshops on constitutional issues, a revisiting of FSM history and its aftermath, discussions about how the FSM influenced the larger trajectory of American higher education, and so forth.    There is a special “Free Speech Week” set for September 24-27th.   A group called “Discover Berkeley”, headed by Boalt Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, will be touring California in October with its “Free Speech Now: the Berkeley Experience” program.  Its focus:  “how to ensure that disparate voices are heard.”

In something of an understatement, Christ lamented: “Now what public speech is about is shouting, screaming your point of view in a public space rather than really thoughtfully engaging someone with a different point of view.”    She neglected to mention those incidents where speech has been shut down entirely.    Whether a low-temperature intellectual milieu can be imagined, much less realized, in the age of Donald Trump, a resurgent conservatism, and escalating campus polarization is yet another matter.

The Chancellor told an assembly of incoming UC students that the Berkeley free speech movement had been launched by liberals and conservatives partnering to win the right to advocate political views on campus.  Well, not exactly:  the reality was that liberals and radicals came together against fierce conservative resistance, both within and outside the university.

Christ noted that free speech as a basic constitutional right remains vital to the “Berkeley community”, adding: “That protection involves not just defending your right to speak, or the right of those you agree with, but also defending the right to speak by those you disagree with, even of those whose views you find abhorrent.”   A ringing endorsement of political freedom right out of the pages of John Stuart Mill’s classic On Liberty.   Throughout American society and its hundreds of college campuses, however, this ideal was destined to fall short, and Berkeley – as we have amply seen – is hardly an exception.    The historic birthplace of “free speech” is simultaneously a bastion of formidable restrictions, limits, and obstacles, where violent conflict has all-too-often crowded out any free exchange of ideas.

While Christ was offering a new generation of Berkeley students words of comfort and hope, the UC administration and police were busy refining “security assessments” for campus speakers.    Groups hosting events will now have to furnish at least eight weeks notice, detailed timetables of events, list of topics covered, and some guarantee against violence.   UC approval – as was the case before FSM had altered the political landscape – requires thorough “vetting” procedures.   Sponsoring groups are expected to pay $15,000 in security costs.

Whatever the Chancellor’s admirable optimism and the strict measures in place, one can only speculate whether forthcoming visits of right wingers including Yiannopoulos, Coulter, and Ben Shapiro – along with special “free speech” events — will be met with anything close to an open hearing of disparate voices.    For his part, the rabble-rousing Yiannopoulos has promises to build a “tent city” in front of Sproul Hall, the same administration building where FSM helped usher in the new left.   Could a new environment of censorship, repression, and violence – at odds with all the FSM represented – be avoided at a time when campus activism remains immersed in multiculturalism and identity politics, when vigilance toward even the slightest hints of hateful discourse is heightened, when groups like Antifa seem primed for combat?    Has what the FSM hoped to achieve, and in great measure did achieve, now become alien to a political climate where speech is something to be tightly regulated and monitored – where, in fact, speech itself is under siege?

Reflecting on the FSM legacy years later, Mario Savio could remember how the movement worked to revitalize long-cherished (but never fully-honored) ideals of free speech and assembly contained in the Bill of Rights.   Savio quoted the Greek philosopher Diogenes as saying “the most beautiful thing in the world is freedom of speech”, adding: “I really feel that.  And we weren’t going to let go of it.  I wasn’t going to let go of it.”  In actuality FSM went beyond free speech itself, connecting speech to politics so as to open space for organizations like SNCC and SDS to advance their work on campus.  Such advocacy, more than speech itself, had been banned by a top-heavy bureaucracy run by Clark Kerr, whose famous “multiversity” vision anticipated a technocratic system of higher education, the “odious” machine Savio so ruthlessly denigrated in his speeches.

For Savio and others involved in this epic chain of events, the FSM was therefore most of all about politics – participatory democracy, to be specific.  In one of several anthologies on the movement, fellow grad student Jeff Lustig put it as follows: “In the course of the struggle we students began to affirm a different purpose for public higher education from the industrial service model proposed by Kerr.  We began to insist that the original and still primary purpose of higher education was political, in the broadest sense, not economic.  It was to prepare people for democratic citizenship.”

On December 1, 1964, more than 800 students occupied Sproul Hall, soon to swept up by Alameda County sheriffs in what would be the largest mass student arrest in U.S. history.   I was among the protesters that night, escaping police detention when summoned to rush my wife to the hospital.  For me, as for Savio, Lustig, and hundreds of others, FSM turned out to be dramatically life-transforming.   By the late 1960s, we believed that everything had changed, that the right of political advocacy would be forever taken for granted at UC, Berkeley.   How wrong we would be!

After the 1960s, the FSM brand evolved into something of a campus industry that even erstwhile hostile UC administrators could share.  The student revolt was occasion for three well-attended public commemorations.  At the twentieth anniversary, in 1984, FSM veteran Michael Rossman organized a week-long series of panels.  There has been a plethora of books, articles, films, and videos on the movement.   In 1977 the Daily Cal newspaper forced the FBI to release its vast collection of files on FSM participants.  In the late 1990s Rossman created an FSM website where hundreds of documents and other materials could be accessed.   There is even a Free Speech Café located mere steps from the sixties upheavals.

That is one side of the story.   In more recent times, the deepening cult of identity politics, along with elevated ideological strife, has given rise to an astonishing reversal:  the same arch-conservative interests that strove to block advocacy in the sixties are now fighting – often against censorship and force – to secure their own freedom of advocacy.  The previous “outside agitators” on the left have become mostly insiders, apostles of multiculturalism and unswerving enemies of “hate speech”.   These days the ACLU is more likely to be enlisted by Coulter or Shapiro than by Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges.

At Berkeley, as at other institutions of higher learning in the U.S., campus life is governed by a byzantine system of laws, rules, and codes restricting or banning discussion on a wide variety of topics.   Transgressions, real or perceived, can bring censorship, protests, discipline, even violent assault.   In contrast to the older McCarthyism, however, the new censors are not so much the government and police but students, faculty, and administrators ready to investigate, detect, and punish.   As we have recently seen, moreover, speech enforcers can also be militant off-campus groups armed with Molotov cocktails, baseball bats, tire chains, and mace.

If state power is not the main oppressor here, questions arise – the first being who decides what is hateful or offensive?   During the FSM era the answer veered toward the idea of collective struggle to extend the bounds of free speech, which resisted external limits.   That struggle now seems rather arcane in a universe where restrictive social norms and fierce political combat frequently overwhelm institutional and legal protections.

At the same time, definitions of hate speech – nowadays often framed as an act of violence – grow more elastic, expansive, and arbitrary the deeper we enter the murky realm of multiculturalism.  The campus terrain has become especially treacherous, fraught with endless pitfalls and dangers.   We have entered a zone where garden-variety Republicans like Coulter are ritually denounced as “neo-Nazis” and “white supremacists”.   While certain identities (Latinos, blacks, Jews, women, gays) are typically insulated from attack, others fail to qualify:   Russians, Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, and similar villainized groups can be offended, even threatened, with impunity.  And yes, all of these groups have a domestic presence.)   Some of the worst offenders, moreover, can be found at the summits of power.  In a recent talk, former intelligence operative James Clapper denounced Russians (Slavs) as “genetically” inclined toward ruthless and aggressive behavior, without a murmur from the media.   Audiences of that great liberal Bill Maher’s HBO show are regularly treated to tirades against Muslims and Palestinians – the same hate speech routinely heard at AIPAC, with its 100,000 members, a yearly budget of $47 million, and real leverage over American politics.   No speech monitors are in sight.

At Berkeley, clashes surrounding the Yiannopolous and Coulter events this year probably did more to bolster than to undermine right-wing politics.   If attempts to silence objectionable speech run counter to historical FSM values, they are also profoundly self-negating.    Chomsky’s argument that chaos brought on by Antifa and kindred groups has been a much-appreciated gift to the extreme right seems on the mark.   One campus leftist railed: “We can’t keep producing this audio-visual propaganda. It is recruiting for the right.”

Professor Robert Reich and others at UC, Berkeley contend that such violence emanates from groups outside the campus, but that is not entirely true:   Antifa recruits freely among students and enjoys support among both students and faculty.    The Yiannopoulos event, formally opposed by more than 100 professors, was protested by 1500 students including many determined to shut down the rightist provocateur known mostly for his performance acts.   There is always plenty of space to counter such speakers, but forcefully shutting them down is no answer, as that simply feeds their sense of victimism and capacity to win sympathy, while implicating the broader mass of protesters in an ongoing theater of political combat.

Antifa screams about racism and fascism on the right, which of course exists, while ignoring those same tendencies – not to mention warmongering – among liberal Democrats.   The group seems blind to far more consequential fascist interests at work within the power structure itself.    Despite a well-cultivated radical image, Antifa rarely focuses on the growing ultra-nationalism, militarism, and imperialism that lies at the very core of American politics – tendencies in fact more dangerous than the rhetoric of Yiannopoulos, Coulter, and Shapiro.   Beneath its ultra-leftism is a modus operandi riddled with the worst of identity politics.   And since its violent tactics are not aligned with any popular movement, its opposition to fascism (such as it is) turns hollow, empty.

The irony is that while the FSM and its heirs did everything possible to expand the realm of free speech, new social forces – extreme identity groups, Antifa – want to restrict or deny freedoms.   One current Berkeley student wondered why large sectors of the left have grown so terrified of free speech: “If fascism means shutting down political opposition and muzzling dissent, then just who is the fascist here?”  Said another: “Berkeley should be the epicenter of a thriving marketplace of ideas.  Unfortunately, it has become the most intolerant place in America.”

Antifa militants, advocates of direct-action politics in the Black-Bloc tradition, have no doubt drawn added energy from the Charlottesville events, increasingly primed for street combat.   Meanwhile, operatives at CNN and other corporate media outlets seem infatuated with a group they not long ago savaged for its “culture of random violence”.  In this incendiary environment, it might be worth asking whether free speech as a resonant ideal has been reduced to obsolescence.  One Antifa member recently boasted: “Whatever you can do to throw a wrench into the gears is valuable.”   One can only wonder, five decades later, how Mario Savio might view this misappropriation of his classic summons to radical action.   (I believe he would say something about being “sick at heart”.)    As for Chancellor Christ, we’ll get her response soon enough.

CARL BOGGS is the author of several recent books, including Fascism Old and New (2018), Origins of the Warfare State (2016), and Drugs, Power, and Politics (2015).  He can be reached at