This guest post is an uncivil retort which demeans a viewpoint, written by an academic
whose desire to remain anonymous is a function of the free speech
climate that people like Nicholas Dirks and Phyllis Wise have created.
“Until 1959 Telegraph
Avenue extended through the campus up to Sather Gate. Tables were stationed
there, rallies assembled, and all types of literature sold and distributed.
With the construction of the Student Union building, however, Telegraph Avenue
ended at Bancroft Way. At this new gate to the campus, the traditional
activities continued. The Bancroft and Telegraph sidewalk was generally
regarded as being city property. Groups received table permits from the
city of Berkeley authorities. In fact, the Dean's Office referred questions on
the use of the area to the city police department. On September 14, Dean
Towle informed the heads of all student organizations that the Bancroft and
Telegraph sidewalk was in fact University property and that all University
rules would henceforth be applied. No tables or speeches would be allowed.
Only informational literature could be distributed; no advocacy was allowed”
Of course, addressing
the “campus community” is simply what he is doing, just a very formulaic
opening, but that formula reflects the framework through which everything that
comes after it is implied. For there to be a “campus community,” there also has
to be a not-campus community, people who are outside the campus. But how a
public university comes to have an outside to itself is an interesting
question; how does a Californian become a outsider to a public Californian
university? As the university becomes less and less “Californian,” in
fact—turning to out-of-state students as cash cows—the terms on which the
university is construed a community also changes: you have to buy your way in.
Instead of getting a free education as a function of being a Californian (as it
was, in the 1960s), you become a member of the community by purchasing your
place. And one can be expelled from a community; if it’s a body of people, it’s
also a place.
Fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, which made the
right to free expression of ideas a signature issue for our campus, and indeed
for universities around the world. Free speech is the cornerstone of our nation
and society – which is precisely why the founders of the country made it the
First Amendment to the Constitution. For a half century now, our University has
been a symbol and embodiment of that ideal.
Between the beginning
and end of this paragraph, Dirks transforms a bitter, festering sore of an
unresolved conflict into a unifying principle, using the power of intellectual
dishonesty and bad faith. To be blunt: fifty years ago, the university administration
censored its students, unreservedly and without hesitation. Student groups had
begun to take part in civil rights agitation, and when the campus threatened to
become a site where students and the community at large would do politics
together—and when segregated businesses told the university to keep its
students in line—the university told its students to sit down and shut up.
Students who disobeyed were “suspended indefinitely”—a punishment which the
university had to invent on the spot—and people like Jack Weinberg, who had
recently graduated, were turned over to the police.
“At about 11:45 a.m.,
Dean Van Houten and a campus policeman approach one of the tables (CORE) at
which about a dozen persons are sitting. Jack Weinberg, a recent Cal graduate,
is told he is violating University rules and is placed under arrest when he
refuses to leave the table. Students spontaneously sit down around the police
car which has arrived on the plaza and block the car from removing Mr.
Weinberg. Mario Savio, head of Friends of SNCC, removes his shoes and begins to
address a crowd of over a thousand, from atop the police car. He discusses the
position of the united front and the injustice of the Administration's response
to their free speech demands. Many others also make speeches. The protest is
extended by sitting-in in Sproul Hall.”
The founding event of
the Free Speech Movement, the reason we remember it, and the reason Nicholas
Dirks’ predecessors were prevented from censoring their students—as they had
wanted to—is that students said no. They prevented the cops from expelling the
“outside agitators” by putting their bodies on the machine, etc. They refused
to allow the police to patrol the borders of their “campus community”; they
made clear that the cops were the outsiders, and that Jack Weinberg—and other
civil rights organizers—were part of the campus community. They won. Their
disobedience prevented Nicholas Dirks’ predecessors from stifling the kinds of
political activism that the local business community objected to:
Let me underscore
this with bulletpoints:
Free Speech Movement began with students organizing to oppose segregation,
being aggressively blocked by the administration, rejecting its authority to
censor them, and winning.
university administration was on the wrong side of history, and got taught a
lesson by its students.
lesson is this: when power tells you to sit down and shut up, the best answer
is to tell power to go fuck itself.
The problem with
Dirks’ letter, up to this point, is that the university has been a consistent
site of politicized repression. To the extent that the victories of the Free
Speech Movement have been maintained, it has always been by students
pushing back against administration efforts to police and control.
This letter is also
an effort to police and control.
we honor this turning point in our history, it is important that we recognize
the broader social context required in order for free speech to thrive. For
free speech to have meaning it must not just be tolerated, it must also be
heard, listened to, engaged and debated.
“Free Speech” is not
a delicate flower that needs compost and sunlight and watering; “free speech”
needs the absence of repression. That’s it. For “free speech to thrive,” you
need the administrators not to call the police on its students. You need people
to know that having an opinion about an unpopular social issue—say, opposing
the Israeli occupation, or opposing racial segregation in Mississippi, or for
that matter the privatization of public universities—will not result in their
being punished for their wrong-think. And if “free speech” can only thrive when
it is “heard, listened to, engaged and debated,” Dirks and his administration
have some soul-searching to do about how they will hear, listen, engage, and
debate their students.
the Free Speech Movement have requested time to speak before the Regents Friday
to present their side of the controversy. The Regents will decide today whether
the "quite crowded" agenda will permit time for such a presentation,
according to a University spokesman. The Free Speech Movement announced
yesterday it has sent a telegram to Governor Edmund Brown requesting an
appointment with the Board of Regents at their meeting tomorrow. "If this
request is denied we must consider alternate action," the telegram
The next passage is
where Dirks transitions from bad-faith concern trolling towards his ultimate
destination, incoherence masking a threat:
this is easier said than done, for the boundaries between protected and
unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between the
campus and the classroom, between debate and demagoguery, between freedom and
responsibility, have never been fully settled. As a consequence, when issues
are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings,
the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and
divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation.
In this passage,
Dirks asserts that “division and divisiveness” are threats to “a community’s
foundation,” a rhetorical snake-pit that we will need to backtrack to
understand. In the first paragraph he described how
“Free speech is the
cornerstone of our nation and society – which is precisely why the founders of
the country made it the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
At best, he’s
constructed a tautology: free speech can lead to divisiveness which can
undermine the cornerstone of our society, a society whose founders founded on
free speech. Which, er, so wait: free speech is the foundation but free speech
can put free speech in peril, so that’s why free speech can’t be free. Some
kinds of free speech are more free than others and freedom isn’t free, I guess.
At best, then, this
is just tautological nonsense. At worst, it’s an effort to define what kinds of
speech are allowed to be free, and which kinds of speech have to be suppressed,
in the name of free speech. Which one it is depends on how stupid you think
Nicholas Dirks is.
I don’t think he’s
stupid. I think he wants to create a campus climate where we accept that “free
speech and political advocacy” are two different things, and where we fight
over the difference. I think he’s smart enough to understand that political
advocacy is explicitly protected speech—that it’s very specifically the form of
protected speech which both the Free Speech Movement and the First Amendment
specifically defend—and that this rhetorical gesture nudges his audience
towards accepting indefensible trade-offs, to make it seem natural that you
free speech means the freedom to say things that are not prohibited (because
they’re political advocacy, demagoguery, irresponsible, or something else).
It’s the same slight of hand as when National Security hawks tell us that there
is a trade-off between freedom and security: what they mean is that we have to
have less freedom, because security. Don’t you know there’s a war on?
Dirks seems to think
there is a war on:
fall, like every fall, there will be no shortage of issues to animate and
engage us all. Our capacity to maintain that delicate balance between communal
interests and free expression, between openness of thought and the requirements
and disciplines of academic knowledge, will be tested anew.
The community needs
you to express yourself less freely. The disciplines of academic knowledge
require you to be less open in your thought.
Issues will arise to
engage and animate you; remember, your ability to dis-engage and dis-animate
will be on the test, so study hard.
we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and
respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other
with civility. Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are
basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas. In this sense, free
speech and civility are two sides of a single coin – the coin of open,
Is there anything
more disrespectful than a letter from the chancellor expressing such a raft of
poorly thought-through, nakedly dishonest, and intellectually bankrupt ideas?
Does this make you feel respected?
A few years ago,
students gathered on the Mario Savio Steps of Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley, and
were told to disperse, and then beaten by police when
they did not. At UC Davis, of course, they were pepper sprayed. At UC
Riverside, they were shot with rubber bullets. Does this
make you feel safe?
as we wish to honor the ideal of Free Speech, therefore, we should do so by
exercising it graciously. This is true not just of political speech on Sproul
Plaza, but also in our everyday interactions with each other – in the
classroom, in the office, and in the lab.
On its own, this
letter is just an obnoxiously whiggish mis-telling of campus history. One would
have expected that a historian would be reluctant to put his name on this
garbage, but of course he’s not really a historian anymore—he’s a university
chancellor. His job is not to say things that make a damned bit of sense; his
job is to keep the people who matter happy.
This letter also does not happen in a vacuum. When he talks
about the importance of civility, we recall that Steven Salaita has been fired
for failing to be civil, gracious, and respectful. Nicholas Dirks’ predecessor
defended police violence against student protesters by saying they were “not
non-violent” and Dirks still hasn’t quite reached that level of dishonest
ingenuity. But this letter demonstrates that he’s working on it.