Is it time for a Berkeley Free Speech Festival?

Becky O'Malley
Friday May 12, 2017 - 05:14:00 PM

With all the hoohah going on in DC this week, the hoohah over Berkeley losing its brand as the free speech capital of the universe is no longer on the local front pages. But it’s alive and well in the hinterlands, viz an AP story which ran this week, at least in Santa Fe: Free speech could be threatened at colleges. Here’s the lede:

“In campus clashes from California to Vermont, many defenders of the First Amendment say they see signs that free speech, once a bedrock value in academia, is losing ground as a priority at U.S. colleges.”

Most such pieces, like this one, don’t make a clear distinction between academic institutions and the towns where they’re located, so the two radical right rallies in Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Civic Center Park have now been merged in the public consciousness with the commotion over cancelled campus speaking gigs for alt-right uglies Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter at the Berkeley branch of the University of California.

As far as can be determined, as we’ve discussed before in this space, the first fracas, which accompanied Milo’s UC non-appearance, was shifted to the city’s turf by the UC police, where it was carried out between two non-student non-resident gangs of independent youngish white thugs , mostly male. Neither Berkeleyans nor the university—or even free speech—ended up central to the conflict.

The second round, with Trumpistas as the organizers, left the university out altogether, staging the now-requisite brawl in a city park between, again, two gangs from out of town. “Speech” was plentiful but largely incidental to fighting or at least glowering.

Round three purported to be about UC’s attempt to postpone Coulter’s speech, and the brawl was avoided, thanks to a few strategic arrests. The city of Berkeley’s attempt to be a gracious substitute host for an afternoon of, shall we say, “animated discussions” (a kind of Salon des Refusés­) was surprisingly successful, but costly in police overtime.

All three of these events were billed as being about the right to speak freely. The same AP story also reported on another kind of free speech encounter between a university and a right-wing witch: ”On Wednesday, students at the historically black Bethune-Cookman University in Florida tried to shout down a commencement address by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.” This incident has been reported with alarm as signaling the death of free speech at universities, but really it’s not at all new. Another dimension in the free speech analysis which some are developing is a sort of implied right to be listened to, which has not previously been part of the deal.

My Cal class of ’61 picketed our graduation in caps and gowns because the commencement speaker, Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown, father of Governor Jerry, had failed to halt the execution of prison author Caryl Chessman. By that time I was living elsewhere, and I didn’t want to cross a picket line, so I didn’t even come back to Berkeley for the ceremony.

A quarter of a century later, most of my daughter’s graduating class at Barnard/Columbia sat respectfully through the speech of civil rights scholar Marian Wright Edelman but then walked out to show their support for university divestment from South Africa. There’s no reason any graduates at any of these events, including the one in Florida, should not have been allowed to express their political opinions as they did.

Where some get squeamish is when booing threatens to completely drown out the invited speaker. Some academics disdain what they call the “hecklers’ veto”, but anyone who’s ever watched the British Parliament on late night cable knows that this is a long-established Anglo-American tradition.

The usually careful Michael Krasny reported on his KQED Forum interview with beleagured conservative Andrew Sullivan that DeVos’ speech had been cancelled, but his staff quickly corrected him on air. Sullivan claimed that UCB had cancelled Milo and Ann C. because of what they were planning to say, but the actual excuse was threatened rioting. (In Sullivan’s defense, he did call Donald Trump “a hideous buffoon” so he can’t be all bad.)

All of these questions merit further discussion.

I’ve met a couple of times with a small group of past and current Berkeley residents of left inclination who don’t want to give the far right the opportunity to steal the mantle of the defenders of free speech. We come from a variety of activist backgrounds, including at least one veteran of the original FSM, but what we have in common is that we don’t want our city to be bullied by the likes of creepy Milo, who enjoys doing the kind of thing reported locally as making scary threats.

Milo’s current threat is to come back sometime, maybe now postponed until fall, for what he says he hopes will be a “huge multi-day event called ‘Milo’s Free Speech Week.’” How about, instead, starting the Berkeley Free Speech Festival, open to all comers? Not just both sides, but all sides of controversial topics could be invited to participate. Andrew Sullivan could be an MC—he has a gorgeous plummy accent, and Danny Glover might be co-host.

It could be a major tourist draw. Participants (even Milo) should perform for free—after all, talk is cheap. It could be held in a suitably securable location—I can think of several, both on-campus and off. Ticket sales and memorabilia should be enough to cover expenses. (Tee shirt: “I saw Coulter unbuttoned and survived!”) 

August might be a good month, in case we’d like to hold this festival outdoors.( Unless, of course, the impeachment proceedings have gotten started, as they well might. In which case, we’d have to call it off, since everyone will be glued to the TV.) 

Let us know what you think: write to opinion@berkeleydailyplanet.com with your own ideas. We have most of the summer to plan.