Censorship, Free Speech, Carol Christ & Mario Savio

Photograph Source: Mjlovas – CC BY-SA 3.0

Now that Cal has the go-ahead from the State Supreme Court to build student housing in People’s Park I thought of Mario Savio, one of the leaders of the ’64 Free Speech Movement who was also for several decades a colleague of mine at Sonoma State University (SSU), an hour north of Berkeley. I wondered what Mario would say to Cal’s outgoing Chancellor, Carol Christ, who recently stated, “I’ve come to recognize that while freedom of speech is an absolute, just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean it’s right to say.” She added, “We all use censorship in our speech in relation to the occasion we are in. If you value your community, you have to find ways of sharing your views that are not vitriolic, that are not needlessly hurtful to other people.”

Christ speaks with what might be called a “forked tongue.” She might seem to stand on the side of free speech. After all, she says that it is “an absolute.” But she goes on to say “we all use censorship in our speech.” Speak for yourself, Christ; don’t speak for “all” of us. Our community includes Gaza today; it’s not just Berkeley. And if and when we speak for a truce and peace we might hurt the feelings of war mongers here and in Israel. Tough. “Fuck politeness.” Someone’s feelings will always be hurt no matter what one says. Hurt feelings can’t be our yardstick for deciding what to say or not say.

Mario would agree with Christ that one ought not to express views that “needlessly hurt other people.” He expressed that view many times at SSU when and where there were clashes between The Star, the student newspaper, and the Black students on campus. The Star published the “N” word in its pages; it also ran a cartoon that the Black students regarded as racist. The “N” word seemed to be blatantly racist, especially because it appeared in a centerfold collage created by a visiting student, a white man, from the American South who didn’t see anything wrong with using the “N” word.

The controversial cartoon depicted a group of Black men who looked like derelicts and who were on a basketball court. In and of itself the cartoon might not have been terribly offensive. But it was the one and only image of Blacks that appeared in the newspaper all semester. It clearly stereotyped Black men. The Black students at SSU collected all the copies of The Star with the “N” word and with the cartoon and burned them in a demonstration on campus. They had a permit for the fire from the campus police.

In the early 1990s, when the burning of the papers took place at SSU, The US Supreme Court would have regarded that act as an expression of “symbolic speech,” akin to burning the Stars and Stripes, an act it defended in Texas v. Johnson from 1989.  Today, the court would probably overturn Texas v. Johnson.

Mario Savio valued the First Amendment. As a foe of racism, he was also sensitive to the needs and wants of the Black community on campus. He wanted the editors and reporters on The Star to understand why Black students confiscated and burned copies of the paper. (They didn’t steal them. The paper was free and not sold. ) The staff of the paper refused to meet with the Black students. They argued that the First Amendment was absolute; they dug in their heels and refused to budge. They said that they believed in free speech but would not speak with the Black students. (In Rohnert Park, the city in which SSU is located, Black students told me they heard the “N” word directed at them.)

Mario said famously “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, it makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part!” He added, “you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop!” That time is now. The operation of the war machine in Gaza is so odious and so sickening that it demands that humans do everything they can do to stop it, including sitting in and occupying space on college campuses, like Cal where Christ called the cops and where  students were arrested. If you’re arrested for expressing your First Amendment rights it’s not free. You pay a penalty.

I was the “faculty adviser” to The Star, the most odious part of my teaching job.  The students wouldn’t listen to me. David Benson the SSU president wanted me to censor the paper, something I could not and would not do and didn’t do, though I thought it might cost me my job. It didn’t. Benson departed. I stayed and taught a class on the First Amendment.

For much of my life I censored myself, though it hurt to do so. Then I began to speak out and felt better doing so. If and when I hurt someone’s feelings and didn’t mean to do so I could and did apologize. It is better, I decided, to say something than nothing at all. Silence in some situations can be worse than saying something that might be misunderstood. You can take back what you said that hurt.

Chancellor Christ will not be remembered as an advocate for free speech but rather as the administrator who called the cops on the students at Cal and who put some of the final nails in the coffin of People’s Park. In March of 2024, Christ and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice appeared on the stage together at Zellerbach on the Cal campus to talk about free speech. Outside Zellerbach, students carried a banner that read, War Criminal.” They also shouted “Free Palestine.” Christ chose Rice to share the stage with her. What does that say about her commitment to freedom of speech? It says that when push comes to shove she stands with the machine. Oh, Mario, I wish you were here now to defend the First Amendment and to speak for Gaza. We will all have to speak for you.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.