College students need to step up and stop the pervasive suppression of free speech on college campuses. I enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, because of the school’s message that everyone’s voice counts — that the home of the free speech movement still values intellectual discourse and divergent opinions. Unfortunately, political extremists are doubling down on efforts to shutter free speech at Berkeley and on other college campuses across the nation.
The statistics on suppression of free speech on college campuses nationwide are daunting. According to a November article in the National Review, the rate of “shout-downs” or events where protesters effectively blocked speakers from delivering their message on college campuses has quadrupled in number since last spring.
My own experience at Berkeley is not only fraught with examples of free speech suppression but utterly inconsistent with what I thought college in general, and Berkeley in particular, should be all about. Berkeley captured my interest during the college admissions process because a particular moment in the school’s history resonated with me: the image of Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement speaking up courageously for First Amendment rights on campuses. The struggle and eventual success of this movement is, in my mind, everything college should be about. Students both on the right and left sacrificed for one another’s right to be heard; they sacrificed for an enriched campus discourse, even if they completely disagreed with some of the messages they fought for.
Unfortunately, rather than experiencing the free exchange of speech and ideas, I have encountered violence and intolerance. I recently attended a campus lecture by conservative Ben Shapiro. After the event, I ended up amidst a crowd of protesters that had made their way to campus. Standing near a woman who held a pro-Shapiro poster, I watched as another woman approached her, tore the poster from her hands, and hurled her to the ground. The woman’s head hit the pavement and riot police quickly arrived and summoned an ambulance.
This was not an isolated incident. I have seen students shut down others for merely expressing their opinions. I’ve had discussions with fellow students who support banning controversial speakers from campus. I’ve witnessed Berkeley College Republicans being spat on while trying to recruit new members.
A recent survey by the New York Times finds that some Berkeley faculty members believe violence is “acceptable” to shut down free speech when it is “used against what is perceived as fascist intruders.” If used irresponsibly to describe those who disagree with you, I believe that buzzwords like “fascist,” “racist,” and “alt-right” damage their power when calling out the true evils that they actually represent, and become ways of hiding from legitimate, beneficial discourse.
U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ recently declared “the public expression of many sharply divergent points of view is fundamental both to our democracy and to our mission as a university.” The dean of Berkeley’s law school, Erwin Chemerinsky, is a national expert who published a book this fall titled Free Speech on College Campuses. I reached out to him recently and asked him specifically about the current and future status of free speech at Berkeley. His response: “I strongly believe that all ideas should be welcome on a campus and all should be protected. That is what a university should be all about.”
However, it is the actions of students and not the words of university administrators that will define our future. Students across the country themselves must take responsibility. It is time to stop being so sensitive; if someone’s ideas offend you, call them out and debate them publicly, but don’t prohibit them from being heard. Just this month, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a highly anticipated case which involves the collision of free speech with anti-discrimination laws. During the argument, Justice Kennedy remarked that “tolerance is essential in a free society and tolerance is most meaningful when it’s mutual.”
College students should heed these words of wisdom, start listening more, and reverse the rising tide of blanket condemnation which is permeating our campuses.
Max Keating is a student at UC Berkeley.