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Violence at UC Berkeley and the Question of Free Speech on Campus

By Alliyah Leocadio
When controversial speaker Pamela Geller was invited to speak at Brooklyn College in 2015, students protested by preventing her from speaking and shouting over her voice. Photo/ Radhika Viswanathan
When controversial speaker Pamela Geller was invited to speak at Brooklyn College in 2015, students
protested by preventing her from speaking and shouting over her voice. Photo/ Radhika Viswanathan

Published: May 10th, 2017

It’s no surprise that ever since Donald Trump took office, the topic of hate speech has been such a hot button issue.

This topic has caused quite a stir for the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). Two weeks ago, the college scheduled a conservative speaker, Ann Coulter, to give a speech. When it was announced that she would be speaking at the event, many of the students retaliated in backlash. Protest and riots began to break out in response.

In February, a group of masked spectators known as Black Bloc had broken windows and set fires to buildings to prevent a right-wing speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos, from continuing with his event at UC Berkeley. Fearing a similar reaction, UC Berkeley decided to cancel the event scheduled for that day and invited her to speak at a later time. Coulter, on the other hand, wasn’t happy with the decision and declined to speak at all.

She went on to Twitter to state that her speech was cancelled.  “I’m so sorry Berkeley canceled my speech,” she said. “I’m so sorry [Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth organization] acquiesced in the cancelation. And I’m so sorry for free speech crushed by thugs.”

What makes having far-right speakers on campus so controversial? What are these people doing that’s causing many of the students to react in such a way?  Could this ever be a possibility for Brooklyn College?

In 2015, Brooklyn College invited a conservative and anti-Islamic speaker, Pamela Geller, to speak at an event on campus, and things went very left. Some of the students who didn’t agree began to speak out against her during the event. Though things didn’t reach the levels they did at UC Berkeley, it makes one wonder why so much protests and violence erupt after hateful speech.

“ I understand why [UC Berkeley students] are upset,” said Journalism and Media Studies (JAMS) student Stephanie Farrier. “But it’s always good to hear the other side’s thoughts.”

Adjunct lecturer at Brooklyn College and former editor for the New York Times, Don Hecker, believes that the violence isn’t much of a shocker. “I am sorry to see it happening, but not surprised,” Hecker said. “The divisions in this country are growing deeper and wider, and too often heated words are turning to violence.”

Everyone is entitled to their own views and rights, but is protesting with acts of violence the best idea?

“Protest, yes. Engage in violence, absolutely no,” Hecker said.

One of the main issues concerning Coulter’s situation is that she believes her free speech has been violated; this leads to the main question: What exactly is free speech?

“Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously said that free speech does not give you the right to falsely yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater,” Hecker said. He then continued to explain that there are a number of situations in which one can’t just say anything that one wants. For example, in a business situation, speech can be limited especially if it involves things such as investing.

“Speech is a weapon more dangerous than any knife or gun,” Hecker said. “I believe every opinion presented calmly and courteously ought to be heard. But I don’t believe you have an absolute right to use words as bullets or blades.”

Farrier also believes that free speech is a very powerful tool—as long as it’s not hateful. “I think it’s all about intent with free speech for me,” she said. “Sometimes people say certain things and they want to cause havoc with it, like they want to insight violence, they want to cause something bad to happen and sometimes it hard to tell people’s intentions.” 

It can be argued that though Coulter was using her right to free speech, her speech was hateful and incited violence. So where does one go from there?

Farrier feels hateful speech should have stricter boundaries and consequences. “If you’re trying to name somebody’s fate like ‘All Muslims should die’ or something crazy, that’s hate speech,” she said.  “When you are hateful, when you are trying to bring people down, there should be consequences to what you said.”

In a country as diverse as America in which there is a right to free speech, many people will not agree with the ideas and opinions of certain individuals. We are all entitled to hear the other side’s opinions, especially on college campuses.

 “The campus is supposed to be the place where all sides of a question can be heard and weighed,” Hecker said. “That is most certainly not the same thing as someone making venomous verbal assaults on other individuals or groups. If you will engage in courteous discourse, you ought to have a chance to air your views.”

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