Throughout time, universities were known as islands of free thought, promoting open inquiry, and leading ideas forward. In 1964, the University of California cracked down on the expression of ideas on campus, announcing University regulations prohibiting advocacy of political causes or candidates, outside political speakers, recruitment of members, and fundraising by student organizations strictly enforced. This triggered a backlash on campus, and the activism of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. This was turning point in the civil rights movement and kicked off student activism nation-wide.
Free speech is important, and a right, which makes abrogation of free speech on campuses a grave threat to all.
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all. – Mario Savio on the steps of Sproul Hall
I was born well after 1964, but the legacy of Mario Savio and the FSM helped me decide to become a lawyer. To defend people and their rights, despite the public harassment they may face, or I may face for defending them. Sometimes I defend murderers, sometimes caring parents who are cruelly charged with false “Shaken Baby Syndrome” when their infant accidentally dies, and sometimes I get to defend people accused of the “crime” of free speech.
A few years I defended an Occupy Cal protester against criminal charges related to their exercise of free speech. The crux of the case was a violation of First Amendment rights.
This month, the Regents of the University of California system are proving that they cannot leave well enough alone. They are once again tinkering with the rights of free expression on campus. UC policy that stifles dissent and free speech is wrong headed. To protect the feeeelings of a few students, the Regents are drafting rules that will quash free inquiry and repress political debate.
Regents chairwoman Monica Lozano announced “…the creation of an eight-person committee — of regents, the student regent, a faculty leader and others — to craft stronger and more specific policies that would protect academic freedom and yet condemn intolerance against any group.”
Of course any hateful acts, threats, or intimidation is wrong, but there are already crimes for those. What the UC Regents are doing here is a form of thought police that nips the expression of ideas in the bud, and put a student or professor in jeopardy for sharing an idea, or exploring a notion aloud. University is not about being sheltered from new and controversial ideas. University is where ideas are allowed to flourish or die on their own merits, for the benefit of the world.
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