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What Is Free Speech?

Image via Unsplash. Image via Unsplash.

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of the Intercollegiate Review. Check out the rest of the issue here.


In the fall of 2014, as UC Berkeley was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its Free Speech Movement, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks elicited nationwide criticism for characterizing free speech and civility as “two sides of a single coin.” He argued that we can exercise the former only when we “feel safe and respected.” Ours is a hypersensitive age—consider the explosion of “trigger warnings” for even classic works of the Western canon—and the flighty sentiments of the ever-offended classes surely must not determine what is and is not legitimate speech in a free society.

At the time, I critiqued Dirks’s argument in an op-ed in Berkeley’s student newspaper, the Daily Californian. Drawing on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, I questioned whether free speech itself had become a “dead dogma” on campus for want of “full, frequent, and fearless discussion of its value.” Now I am even more convinced that we suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of what free speech truly is.

There is little question that we also suffer from a dearth of civility. Chancellor Dirks and Provost Claude Steele were hectored, jeered at, and drowned out by protestors during a May event on what makes a university public. The disruptions—over Berkeley’s allegedly racist and sexist decision not to grant a professor tenure—became so frequent and indecorous that the event had to be cut short.

Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. In December, PayPal cofounder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel had to be evacuated to safety when a band of protestors stormed Wheeler Auditorium. In April, members of the Black Lives Matter movement twice blockaded Berkeley’s iconic Sather Gate, which stands at the heart of Berkeley’s central thoroughfare. They failed to furnish a principled argument for why students should not be able to take the most direct route to class.

While I am heartened that my peers are moved to take action where they perceive injustice, I am deeply concerned that they evince utter disregard for the individual rights that underpin any hope of a shared life in a democratic society. The understanding of free speech behind these three protests is totalizing and zero-sum; it physically coerces immediate attention and affords no room for reasoned discussion. Past being uncivil, such tactics go beyond speech.

In stark contrast with these protests, the ISI Burke Society at Berkeley has offered online commentary and public debates on the issues at stake. True free speech earns attention through the merit of its arguments and their aesthetic presentation. At its best, it sparks further truth-oriented engagement.

Free speech and the preparedness to defend it are two sides of a single coin.

Nihal Singh is a senior at Berkeley and the president of the ISI Burke Society.

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