Free speech week: The circus is back at Berkeley (and there are plenty of clowns)

The circus is returning to the University of California, Berkeley, as a sequel to rioting in February by black-clad protesters angered by the campus visit of conservative speaker Milo Yiannapolous. The goal of the protestors then and now is simple: demonize and silence conservatives.

Shamefully, the Berkeley rioting was permitted by a hands-off attitude by university administrators. After a now-departed chancellor and his aides ordered University of California police to stand aside, rioters set fires, inflicted $100,000 in damage to university buildings, and prevented Yiannapolous from speaking.

And in April, conservative Ann Coulter cancelled her speech at UC Berkeley when the university said it could not accommodate her on the scheduled day and time because of threats of violence. 

By refusing to take reasonable measures to protect a forum for free speech at a place many consider to be the world’s greatest public university, campus administrators gave both the conservative speakers and the protesters exactly what they wanted: a spectacle of destruction, disorder and anger.

The Berkeley riots inspired copycats at other campuses across the country eager to silence conservatives. 

Now, Yiannapolous – possibly joined by Coulter and former Trump White House and campaign adviser Steve Bannon and other conservatives (the list of participants can’t be confirmed) – has scheduled round two for Free Speech Week at Berkeley starting Sunday.

Unfortunately, the scripted dance between conservative provocateurs and offended leftists obscures the fundamental issues at stake. Free speech, once universally regarded as a core principle of American higher education, is under direct assault today.

This is particularly ironic at UC Berkeley, which states on its website: “From a group of academic pioneers in 1868 to the Free Speech Movement in 1964, Berkeley is a place where the brightest minds from across the globe come together to explore, ask questions and improve the world.” It’s hard to ask questions if you aren’t allowed to speak.

On many colleges, faculty and students demand a ban on any outside speakers who peddle “hate speech,” which seems to include any ideas that listeners find offensive. And over 40 percent of millennials in some surveys support restrictions on the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Just a few days ago, Berkeley hosted conservative writer Ben Shapiro for a speech, but only after erecting concrete barriers in the middle of the night and deploying70 police officers. The estimated cost of all this security was $600,000. That doesn’t even qualify as cheap speech, let alone free speech.

There are three aspects to the free speech controversy.

First, while the campus left has shouted down many conservative speakers going back to the days of the Vietnam War, a segment of the left today has decided to exercise a heckler’s veto by violent means if necessary.

The Antifa (anti-fascist) riots at UC Berkeley and elsewhere are an example of a newly aggressive anti-conservative movement. By falsely labeling all conservatives as fascists, leftists implicitly lump conservatives and Nazis together as evil forces that must be stopped. This absurd lie is designed to stir up hatred, not generate a dialogue and scholarly inquiry between people with different political beliefs.

Berkeley’s new chancellor, Carol Christ, deserves praise for her determined stance to regain control of the Berkeley campus and ensure free speech for everyone. But it will be hard to say free speech is being honored if the university has to resort to massive force and expense every time a famous conservative comes to campus.

Ironically, the protesters – including a large number of non-students – are raising the costs of education (in the form of the higher tuition to pay for security) for the very students they claim to want to shield from uncomfortable thoughts.

Second, the principle of free speech is in eclipse on college campuses because the monoculture of campus leftism is growing more radical.

Survey data show that the number of conservative professors in the social sciences and humanities, while never very large, has been steadily shrinking over the last 25 years.

Social science research also tells us that homogeneous groups tend to get more extreme in their views precisely to the extent that they converse only with each other. And what group is more politically homogeneous than college professors?

Many faculty members today simply can’t conceive that any reasonable person could have a rational reason for opposing affirmative action, abortion, “free” health care, a $15 minimum wage, massive income redistribution, or radical limits on energy use. Some liberal professors even cling to a dubious social science study that supposedly finds conservatives are mentally ill!

So its seems quite natural for the overwhelmingly leftist professoriate to conclude that conservative speakers not only have nothing to say, but that their ideas constitute “hate” against students who feel “unsafe” in the presence of opposing worldviews.

Once you accept this distorted and baseless view, it’s easy to take one step further and say conservatives should be banned from campus. This lack of freedom of speech suppresses the open debate of ideas on campuses that are losing ideological diversity.

Third, the replacement of free speech with censorship is hurting students.

Imagine you are a conservative student at a large university like Berkeley. They do exist: the Berkeley College Republicans set up a table on Sproul Plaza almost daily, where they are routinely spit upon, cursed, protested, and have their printed materials vandalized. Yet somehow this behavior never gets regarded as assault or “hate speech.”

In the classroom, conservative students find almost no conservative professors. More likely, they hear their views mocked and ridiculed by professors and students.

If you are a student in such circumstances, inviting the most flamboyant and controversial right-wing figures such as Milo Yiannapolous or Ann Coulter appears to be an attractive way to fight back against what the professoriate would describe as an “oppressive atmosphere” if it was experienced by any other segment of students.

Sometimes, defenders of censorship of conservatives claim that undergraduates are “snowflakes” whose parents and teachers have shielded them from any uncomfortable situations or thoughts.

But our own experience at Berkeley has been that most students are not snowflakes. But even if they were, it is the duty of teachers not to indulge these sheltered egos, but to challenge them.

Students will be unable to truly realize the benefits of a liberal arts education if they cannot choose for themselves what to believe after encountering the ideas of every persuasion.

And teachers who coddle their students’ sensitivities will only do their charges a disservice by failing to prepare them for the real world, where they cannot be sheltered from ideas they may find disturbing.

In a sense, the campus left deserves the provocations and heartburn of firebrands like Milo Yiannapolous and Ann Coulter. It is the perverse result of the growing leftist orthodoxy on campus.

But beyond the strictures of political correctness, the narrowing of campus ideology has enfeebled liberalism. The scene today is a liberalism that seeks to suppress disagreement because it is unable to debate or defeat its opponents in arguments. This impulse to suppress results in debasing what ought to be a vibrant campus culture of intellectual debate.

If students were actually afforded the opportunity for genuine intellectual debate, liberal students would be less shocked at challenging ideas, and conservative students would be less tempted toward inviting smash-mouth speakers. Then everyone might appreciate anew the importance of free speech and ideological diversity to a free and diverse society.

John C. Yoo is Heller professor law at UC Berkeley School of Law and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of the new book “Striking Power: How Cyber, Robots and Space Weapons Change the Rules of War.” 

Steven F. Hayward is a senior resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley.