No Conflict: Opposing Military, Supporting Free Speech

By Becky O’Malley
Friday December 07, 2007

“The issue of support for the presence of a USMC Officer Selection Office in Berkeley pits Berkeley’s traditional anti-war stance against its historic commitment to free speech and assembly.  

Citizens, and some City Council members, have spoken out against the location of a Marine Officer Selection Office in Berkeley—a city that officially opposes the current conflict in Iraq. There is a desire to protect our youth from contact with recruiters and a concern about the actions of dishonest recruiters in other parts of the country. 

As traditional as is Berkeley’s anti-war philosophy, the city has an equally long and passionate history of support for the rights of free speech and assembly, which supports the right of this Office to exist in Berkeley. The essence of the Free Speech Movement was protecting the right of all voices to be heard, even those at odds with the prevailing political climate of the time and place. 

Free Speech must not be limited to speech with which one agrees. To allow a legally permitted Office to be shut down, or to limit its right to do business because one disapproves of its message, gives lie to Berkeley’s claim as a city tolerant of diverse viewpoints, and home of the Free Speech Movement. 

No one can limit the right of individuals to ignore a recruiting office, but a city must not take the position of opposing the existence of that Office. It is appropriate that the City Council of Berkeley affirm the right of this office to exist and allow it to succeed or fail on its own merits. 

Should Council Members support the right of this Office to exist in Berkeley?” 


This current “issue” as posed on the website of the Kitchen Democracy organization is an excellent illustration of my old friend George Lakoff’s theory that how something is framed makes all the difference. Why the ironic quotes around “issue”?  

Well, has anyone proposed silencing the marine recruiter who’s currently working Berkeley? Not that I’ve noticed. And yet, consider the frame in the first sentence: 

“The issue of support for the presence of a USMC Officer Selection Office in Berkeley pits Berkeley’s traditional anti-war stance against its historic commitment to free speech and assembly.”  

The whole statement is called an “article” on the website, also misleading, since that’s a term normally associated with professional journalism or with academic research—it carries with it the aura of impartial scholarship. But the piece is really a somewhat poorly informed expression of opinion. It creates a polarity where none exists: Do you say yes or no to free speech? Have you stopped beating your wife yet?  

Allowing wishy-washy “neutral” or “maybe” votes (oh, “positions,” they don’t call them votes anymore) doesn’t make much difference, since few correspondents select them. And since anonymous posting is allowed, there’s a lot of arm-waving taking up space on the site in both the “yes” and the “no” columns.  

Among the posters who’ve signed their names are a good number of people I know to be ordinarily intelligent and thoughtful. Here they’ve come down on both sides of the non-issue, clearly because they haven’t given it much thought this time. The format encourages knee-jerk reactions even among the best and the brightest. It’s too easy to “vote” without thinking much about what you’re doing.  

In fact, no one—no surprise in Berkeley—goes on record as being opposed to free speech. Most, though not all, are opposed to the war in Iraq and even to militarism in general. Most of them, however, don’t seem to be thinking very hard about what the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, traditionally the mainstay of support for freedom of speech, is all about, and to whom it applies.  

Quick review: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” 

Historically, this has been extended to include lower governmental entities such as the Berkeley City Council. The council even takes an oath each year to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, as well as the California constitution, which has similar prohibitions. So why, in this case, does anyone think the council needs to have a whole special discussion about whether or not the marine recruiter is free to do his business in Berkeley? Don’t they have other things to do? 

Now, we do have a City of Berkeley tradition, not mentioned on the K-D site, of hoping to ignore those constitutional law decisions which say that you can’t control the content of speech. That’s why City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque, thankfully now just a bad memory, went all the way to losing in federal court trying to keep panhandlers from asking for money on the street. But in this case no one at City Hall seems to be saying that the marines aren’t allowed to talk about signing up kids up to make war, or that their opponents aren’t allowed to tell them that they’re dead wrong. 

It is accepted legal doctrine that some restrictions on the time, place and manner of speech are allowed, of course. If the marines decided to hire a sound truck and cruise the hills in the middle of the night blasting residents out of bed with John Phillip Sousa marches and their recruiting message, they could be stopped in a hot minute. But does running a discreet, low-key office downtown during business hours qualify? Probably not. 

The more interesting question is what restrictions, if any, could be placed on their current opponents, who favor, shall we say, more colorful and graphic expressions of opinion. If I were their lawyer, I’d enjoy arguing that because they don’t have the same grandiose taxpayer-funded budget the marines do, they’re forced to make their point in creative ways. The aggregate excitement around the recruiting office might be used as an argument for limiting all such activities to streets which aren’t so busy, but that would be a hard one to make. 

The whole discussion is yet another demonstration of the deficiencies of the Kitchen Democracy format. Anonymous or pseudonymous comments are almost always pointless, which is why the Planet doesn’t print them, though we will occasionally withhold a name from publication on request if we know the writer faces some real threat. The comments on news articles which many papers are starting to allow on their websites signed by cutesy false names are similarly poor, verging on illiterate.  

On the other hand, we’re constantly amazed at the excellent signed submissions we get for our printed opinion pages, even when we don’t agree with them. There seems to be something about knowing that your ideas will appear on paper with your real name attached that makes writers pull up their socks—think things through a bit before writing, revise text if needed, use normal grammar and spelling—refinements which are usually lacking in quick responses posted only on the web. We appreciate them, and our readers do too. 

—Becky O’Malley