Free Speech at Berkeley–So Long as It’s ‘Civil’

Greg Lukianoff, Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2014

This fall the University of California at Berkeley is marking the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement that famously roiled the campus during the 1964-65 school year. What a difference a half-century makes. On Friday Chancellor Nicholas Dirks sent a message to Berkeley faculty, staff and students titled “Civility and Free Speech” that was at best a lukewarm defense of the First Amendment rights that those long-ago students passionately sought with protests and sit-ins because political speech was restricted on campus.

Mr. Dirks noted that the “free expression of ideas” is a “signature issue for our campus,” but he cautioned that free speech can cause “division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation” and may threaten the “delicate balance between communal interests.” That may be true, but that’s the point. Freedom of expression can shake things up and disrupt dogmas–and that’s a prized feature of open discourse, not a bug.

Mr. Dirks writes that “we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so.” But a right to freedom of speech that ends whenever someone on campus claims not to feel “safe and respected” is a right to little more than polite chitchat. Speech that’s free-with-some-qualifications means that students and faculty are left unable to take on the big debates and questions in a way that should be expected in an academic setting.

And while students should certainly feel “safe,” it is important to recognize that these days the word has wandered far from its literal meaning. Feeling “safe” on college campuses means something closer to being completely comfortable, physically and intellectually. {snip}


In my 13 years defending student and faculty speech, I have learned that campus administrators are most likely to deem as “uncivil” speech that criticizes them or the university’s sacred cows. Meanwhile, students who agree with the administration are likely to be complimented for speaking truth to power.

The chancellor of California’s flagship public university should know better. After all, in 2007 a federal judge struck down the California State University system’s civility code after it was used at San Francisco State University to investigate students who stepped on Hezbollah and Hamas flags during an “anti-terrorism” rally. The court’s decision recognized that while civility sounds nice enough, such a broad and vague concept can easily be employed to silence protected speech.

Chancellor Dirks’s heart may be in the right place. But his disinclination to offer a rousing endorsement of free speech–or even to explain its basic importance–is another example of the ambivalence and even outright hostility toward free expression found too often on today’s campuses.

My organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), recently found that 58% of public colleges and universities maintain speech codes that violate the First Amendment. In July we announced that FIRE is turning up the heat by filing a half-dozen lawsuits across the country.

At Modesto Junior College in California, FIRE coordinated a suit on behalf of a student–a military veteran–who was told that he couldn’t hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution to honor Constitution Day. A similar incident occurred at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, where students were told that they couldn’t approach fellow students to hand out copies of the Constitution, and that they had to limit their protests of National Security Agency spying to a small, muddy patch of land designated as a free-speech zone. Citrus College in Glendora, Calif., told a student that he couldn’t protest the NSA outside of a very small free-speech zone–even though Citrus had abandoned that zone in an out-of-court settlement after being sued by another student a decade earlier.


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  • MekongDelta69

    The left’s credo:
    Freedom for me, but not for thee
    Diversity for thee, but not for me

    • Publius Pompilius Quietus

      Liberals are tolerant as long as everyone agrees with them–like all fascists.

  • The students who wanted free speech in 1965 at Berkeley are now running Berkeley today and conniving to take it away.

    The biggest totalitarians in the world are the ones that scream the loudest for freedom.

    • Off the top of my head from that era, wasn’t it Mario Savio (a Marxist tribal member) whose free speech he was seeking was the right to scream “F*** America” a the top of his lungs.

      • Neue Sachlichkeit

        If so I kind of sympathize, I find myself thinking that very phrase multiple times a day at this point.

    • APaige

      Yes. Those that preach tolerance are the least tolerate of all.

  • Don’t worry, America. The freedom to denigrate whites is alive and well on campus. That’s all the freedom of speech the power elites and cultural Marxists want you to have. Isn’t that enough? What more do you want?

  • Easyrhino

    Free speech is a two way street but the left doesn’t want a free flowing dialog, they want a one-way monolog where they speak and you get to listen and be “educated”.

  • dd121

    The lefties want free speech as long as it’s lefty speech. They’re the same ones who want an “honest” debate about race.


    The WSJ uses articles like this as bait for conservative whites while pushing for open borders.

  • Adolf Verloc

    “A federal judge struck down the California State University system’s
    civility code after it was used at San Francisco State University to
    investigate students who stepped on Hezbollah and Hamas flags during an
    “anti-terrorism” rally.” I wonder if he would have reacted with such vigor (or the WSJ approved so heartily) if they had Mexican, Salvadorean, Guatemalan or perhaps Israeli flags.

  • Pax Romana

    Free Speech at Berkeley–So Long as It’s ‘Civil’

    Free speech, so long as it complies with their Liberal Ideals.

    “Any color you want so long as it’s Black” -Henry Ford

  • shawnmer

    Any left wing, speech code loving tyrant on a modern university status who asserts they “respect free speech, BUT … !” Ought to be laughed out of the room.

    • [Guest]

      >>>Ought to be laughed out of the room.

      Better yet, tarred and feathered or drawn and quartered.

  • A Freespeechzone

    This is just a glimpse of the future of the First Amendment; unless Patriots stop this trend.

  • Ronald

    After the 60s 70s era revolutionary element came to power, they expected the world to stop so they could get off. They were wrong. The world did not stop revolving.

  • In 1989, UC Santa Cruz attempted to impose a “voluntary” code of conduct on students who by definition were already 18+ year-old adults. It didn’t go anywhere because people who could think for themselves simply refused to sign.

  • Bon, From the Land of Babble

    Thank you for posting that link. Two of my daughter’s roommates were involved in that bake sale – and the outcome for them was NOT good. Both are full-out lefties but were mistakenly perceived to be “White Supremacists.”

    One received threats of great bodily harm and couldn’t attend classes for several weeks, the other’s family was forced to hire a lawyer because of the constant threats and harassment she endured everywhere she went, including from her instructors – with NO protection from the university.

    Both were almost forced to leave, it got very ugly before it was resolved.

  • [Guest]

    >>>“division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation”

    So we can take it that Nicholas Dirks is a traditionalist and cultural conservative who wishes to preserve the nation’s heritage in the name of unity, right? If he opposes division and divisiveness, he cannot possibly favor things such as multiculturalism and diversity, which are always sources of division.


  • TruthBeTold

    Mr. Dirks noted that the “free expression of ideas” is a “signature
    issue for our campus,” but he cautioned that free speech can cause
    “division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation” and
    may threaten the “delicate balance between communal interests.”

    In other words: ‘We recommend that you self-censor anything anyone might find offensive or cause division’.

  • MindHead99

    This just shows that Universities are indoctrination camps for left wingers. Many countries around the world have already passed “Hate Speech” laws to stifle those who don’t agree with the Totalitarian Left. Slowly the citizens become sheep in a cage.

  • MBlanc46

    In American academia, the only ideas that may be freely expressed are integrationism, multiculturalism, and homophilia. Other ideas need not apply.

  • IKUredux

    First of all understand that “free speech”, is never free.Never has been, never will be. Free speech is the literal underpinning of our Western (White) civilization. FREE SPEECH IS the EPITOME of White Western Civilization. Everybody in the entire world should be allowed to say, think, and write whatever. WHATEVER! There should NEVER be a value judgement ascribed to talking, writing, or thinking. There should NEVER be a law against thinking, or speech, or writing of any kind. The First Amendment as established by the Founding Fathers of the for now United States of America, is without a doubt, the most important, the most revolutionary, the most progressive(as it was formerly understood to be) concept enshrined in law ever put forth upon this planet. The next most important? The second amendment, because keeping people true to the First, is hard goin’. Wow. Just wow. The Founding Fathers picked the amendments in the absolute correct order. Yup, must have been a coincidence. What luck!

    • Ella

      Again, the case of Rotherham shows the results of suppressed speech and lacking gun ownership to protect family from serious threats and bodily harms. Silencing can have a high price for society.

      • IKUredux

        Silencing has the highest price for a society. NO society can ever be free without the ability to freely express their opinions. Frankly, I think the very definition of a free society, is FREE SPEECH! And in today’s world, free speech MUST be followed by the right to bear arms. I only wish my English cousins would rise above their brainwashing and fight back!

  • JohnEngelman

    The free speech movement devolved into the dirty speech movement. By the late 1960’s new left radicals were shouting down speakers they disagreed with. During the spring of 1972 the Students for a Democratic Society held a convention at Harvard for the expressed purpose of forcing the hiring of Professor Richard Herrnstein because of an article he wrote that was published in the October 1971 issue of Atlantic.

    I attended that convention as a reporter for my college newspaper. I was shocked by what I saw.

    • adplatt126

      Nope. Wherever power exists there exists there too the tendency, or shall I say the urge, for men to misuse that power to serve the ends of power itself and the powerful. In fact, as power shifted from the conservative, religious right in the early 20th century to the social Marxist left, speech codes wandered first from suppression to a general acceptance of speech from the 60s to the 80s and then back to suppression. Only now, it’s significantly more widespread. The speech code of the United States is extremely extensive and quite oppressive overall, approaching in public arenas that of moderate totalitarian regimes. In fact, this whole point I’ve made reminds me of an old Rudolf Rocker quote. Needless to say, where there isn’t sufficient critical mass to oppose infiltration or domination, domination will invariably occur. All political ideals rest upon a balance. Where that balance is lost, so too does a society stray from those ideals in the direction the more weighty side demands and to the degree that it does outweigh the other. What’s fascinating however is how political movements and groups so quickly abnegate their former ideals and commitments the moment they acquire power. Then, like the former power structure, they begin operating not primarily according to ideals, but in some substantial degree, to perpetuate their own dominance. Anyhow, the quote:
      “Political rights do not originate in parliaments; they are, rather,
      forced upon parliaments from without. And even their enactment into law
      has for a long time been no guarantee of their security. Just as the
      employers always try to nullify every concession they had made to labor
      as soon as opportunity offered, as soon as any signs of weakness were
      observable in the workers’ organizations, so governments also are always
      inclined to restrict or to abrogate completely rights and freedoms that
      have been achieved if they imagine that the people will put up no
      resistance. Even in those countries where such things as freedom of the
      press, right of assembly, right of combination, and the like have long
      existed, governments are constantly trying to restrict those rights or
      to reinterpret them by juridical hair-splitting. Political rights do not
      exist because they have been legally set down on a piece of paper, but
      only when they have become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any
      attempt to impair them will meet with the violent resistance of the
      populace. Where this is not the case, there is no help in any
      parliamentary Opposition or any Platonic appeals to the constitution.”
      -Rudolf Rocker

    • Spikeygrrl

      Surely you meant FIRING Dr. Herrnstein, not hiring…?

      • JohnEngelman

        Thank you for correcting me.

        • Spikeygrrl

          I hope you’ll do the same for me when I need it.

          As I am coming to understand it, I am one of your few stalwart fans here. Please keep up the good work!

  • Simply search online for “University of Illinois Professor fired for Israel criticism” and then wonder, at your leisure, why the national media in the USA is ignoring the story.

  • AndrewInterrupted

    Is “Civil” the new “Approved”?

  • HamletsGhost

    Meet the new boss………….
    much WORSE than the old boss!

  • Jim

    This all goes back (as it ALWAYS does) to Herbert Marcuse’s partisan leftist doctrine revealed in “Repressive Tolerance.” This work is foundational for liberals, and plainly says that viewpoints from the left wing should be tolerated even to the point of violence, while viewpoints from the right wing should not be tolerated even in word.

    You can call the left hypocrites, but they really aren’t, as they believe that right wing free speech is something akin to a disease…like ebola or smallpox. They truly believe they are doing the world a favor by severely limiting free speech. They believe that tyranny is acceptable – even desirable – as long as it’s “righteous.”

  • LHathaway

    The thing with leftists is they call their censorship ‘free-speech’. They’ve been at it so long, and for all intents and purposes, unopposed so long, their opinions are considered ‘common sense’. There is really nothing that will stop them, outside of the assassination of future president Dan Quayle.

    The more important item in all of this is that our own John Engleman is a former writer for the Harvard Crimson.

    I remember Rush Limbaugh, when he had a TV show, claimed that, “Our college newspapers are run by communists”. Perhaps Mr. Limbaugh knew all about Mr. Engleman. It’s good to have Mr. Engelman here anyway.

    • JohnEngelman

      If I had gone to Harvard I probably would not be living in a black neighborhood. I probably would not know what I have learned about blacks.

      • LHathaway

        What paper were you working for when you covered this news story at Harvard? What of Rush Limbaugh’s statement, “Our college newspapers are run by communists”? You were a communist. You were working for a student newspaper.

        When I worked at a college newspaper 20 + years ago, I had the feeling the paper was being run by students who were communists. This was before I heard Limbaugh make the statement.
        Personally, I don’t believe Limbaugh’s statement to be true anymore. It is also true, papers would no longer need to be run by communists. It’s a well-greased, on-track wheel by this point.

        • JohnEngelman

          I wrote for that college newspaper during my wild, and radical youth. Consequently, I wrote several things that I would not write now.

          However, when the college literary magazine sponsored a pornography contest, I condemned It for doing so. When that magazine sponsored a blasphemy contest, I condemned it more vigorously.

  • JS

    It wasn’t always this way. Universities were a bastion of free speech until the cultural Marxists were allowed entry. They quickly shut the door behind them,