Public Comment

Commentary: A Free Speech Conundrum on Telegraph

By David Nebenzahl
Tuesday January 22, 2008

As I once again encounter the god-damned Jesus freaks holding forth at the corner of Telegraph and Haste, and wonder what should be done about them, the answer seems clear: put up with their crap. My reasoning follows.  

This situation, a group with a religious axe to grind taking up residence in the heart of Berkeley’s “time warp” zone extending straight back to the 1960s, with the expected resulting jaw-grinding, is the classic free speech conundrum. And the proper reflex here, one would think, would be to let free speech prevail. After all, this spot is just a couple blocks from the holiest of holies, the public birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, the place where free speech became sacrosanct. 

Now along come these absolute clowns, these bible-thumping jerks, these brothers to the assholes who traumatize women outside of Planned Parenthood clinics, right in our faces! So the reaction becomes, OK, we have to defend free speech; but isn’t there something we can do about these idiots? Can’t we restore (relative) peace and quiet to this stretch of Telegraph? After all, these jerks torque my jaw too every time I pass by them. 

The answer, unfortunately, is no: we can’t have it both ways. We can’t pay lip service to Free Speech and at the same time cunningly think of ways to hem in that troublesome right, circumscribe it so it doesn’t disturb our stroll down the street or our sleep. But wait a minute: let’s put the shoe on the other foot, shall we? What if we, proud descendents of the FSM, took on a cause—South African apartheid, opposition to a brutal war, you name it—and decided that we needed to disrupt business as usual in order to bring it to the attention of the public. What if we felt compelled to, in those celebrated words, throw ourselves on the gears, wheels and levers of the machinery of the oppressor? Wouldn’t we then also feel compelled to raise our voices, to disrupt the normal flow of daily life, to get in people’s faces, to make things uncomfortable for passersby, so that they would be forced to deal with the issue? In fact, isn’t that exactly what many of us have done? And if so, then how does this differ from what the Jesus freaks are doing? After all, one would think they feel the same urgency towards their “mission,” even if one feels they are misguided. 

I just wonder how much of the growing opposition to the holy rollers is good old-fashioned Berkeley whining, without even the pretense of a nod to free speech. After all, that’s another time-honored tradition here: endless kvetching about the smallest perceived slight, the tiniest disruption to peace and quiet, characterized as a personal assault on My Precious Space. Isn’t this, after all, pretty much the genesis of the current manifestation of hyprocisy known as the “Public Commons for Everyone” catastrophe? Isn’t this the impulse that leads to the construction of “free speech zones” at major protest sites? Where does it stop?  

If one can dish it out, shouldn’t one be able to withstand it? 

What would Mario do? 


David Nebenzahl is a North Oakland resident.