Not Backing Down at Berkeley: Free Speech Under Siege

Not Backing Down at Berkeley: Free Speech Under Siege

In February, rioters rampaged through Berkeley’s campus, setting fire to private property, hurling firebombs at police, and assaulting various individuals. The violence prompted UC Berkeley to cancel a talk from Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart editor.

Free speech is in danger on college campuses across our country. Too often, students shelter themselves from opinions with which they disagree, claiming that the espousal of these ideas makes them feel unsafe.

In recent months, no student organization has fought more gallantly on the front-lines of this battle than the Berkeley College Republicans. The university’s cancellation of conservative firebrand Ann Coulter’s appearance at Berkeley marked the third time that the school buckled to violent threats and intimidation against Berkeley College Republicans (BCR) and its guest speakers. I interviewed Troy Worden, President of Berkeley College Republicans, to get his thoughts on the aforementioned events and on the state of free speech on college campuses.

Worden placed part of the blame on an “extremely hostile” campus environment. He recounted how several members of their organization were “called names,” “spat at,” “threatened and attacked.”

Unfortunately it was not only students, but also the university who contributed to the silencing of free speech at Berkeley. Worden claimed the “university pulled the plug on these events” due to “mere threats of violence.” This prompted them to place “arbitrary restrictions” on BCR events, “making these events [virtually] impossible.” The university was intent on making sure that BCR “could not go host a high-profile speaker,” by not permitting “high-profile” speakers after 3PM on campus, making it exceedingly difficult for many students to attend due to their class schedules. Worse still, the university was hesitant to condemn the violent threats of protesters. It took UC Berkeley six months to denounce the riots that led to the cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos’ event.

Worden accused professors of being “directly responsible for the violence” that has lately been directed at conservatives and conservative speakers on campuses. Since the 2016 presidential election, Worden noted, “we have seen professors and teachers go out of their way in class making death threats against the President and try to get the university or school to punish students who record them.” Furthermore, Worden discussed how radical professors have, for decades, “perpetuated the idea that America is an evil white supremacist nation, and [more recently] that Donald Trump epitomizes that white supremacist representation.” Professors cannot make such “inflammatory claims and not expect people to react violently.” While radicals have long enjoyed an outsized presence in academia, professors inciting violence is a disturbing development.

Worden provided further insight into the mindset of campus radicals, explaining how their tactics and attitudes have changed since the beginning of President Trump’s term. In separating today’s so-called “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs) from the civil rights leaders of the past, Worden argued that “we now see untrained, young individuals resort to violent protest to advance their goals.” While activists have resorted to violent protests in the past, with the 1960’s anti-war protests as an example, this behavior by today’s SJWs reflects what Worden called, “a fundamental misunderstanding of history.” He recounted how “other peaceful forms of civil disobedience were successful” because “civil rights leaders…were proud and believed in the justice they are fighting for.” However, many of the the violent, so-called anti-fascist activists of today are “not willing to show their face[s] in public,” a reflection of cowardice. To explain the heightened aggression on campuses, Worden hypothesized that because college students overwhelmingly dislike President Trump, radicals feel emboldened: a phenomenon that manifests itself in the recent torrent of physical assaults, death threats, and destruction of private property.

Worden concluded by exploring what conservatives can do to shatter the monopoly on intellectual discourse which many leftists believe they are entitled to: “Do not be silenced when the university cancels your event, do not be intimidated, the minute you cave in, the minute you don’t make the infringements a big deal, you lose.” According to Worden, “College Republicans have the ability to lead the new free speech movement.” If leftists at Berkeley were the champions of free speech in the 1970s, then conservatives at Berkeley have certainly taken on their mantle.

University administrators should no longer yield to those who seek to withhold freedom of speech from anyone. Universities can only fulfill their roles as intellectually open institutions if they respect everybody’s right to be heard. The treatment of Berkeley College Republicans by the school administration, students, and outside agitators should disturb people of all political persuasions. If universities continue to cave to the demands of so-called anti-fascists, the persistent debasement of free speech will create an intellectually repressive environment reminiscent of true fascism.

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