Berkeley Chancellor’s Anemic Conception of Free Speech and My New Book: ‘Freedom From Speech’


Late on Friday, University of California—Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks sent around a message claiming to honor the 50th anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, but not only was the message poorly written, it also entirely missed major concepts about freedom of speech.

As I write today in The Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Dirks writes that “we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so.” But a right to freedom of speech that ends whenever someone on campus claims not to feel “safe and respected” is a right to little more than polite chitchat. Speech that’s free-with-some-qualifications means that students and faculty are left unable to take on the big debates and questions in a way that should be expected in an academic setting.

And while students should certainly feel “safe,” it is important to recognize that these days the word has wandered far from its literal meaning. Feeling “safe” on college campuses means something closer to being completely comfortable, physically and intellectually. Boundary-pushing comedian Lenny Bruce, a hero to the Free Speech Movement, wouldn’t have lasted a minute in front of today’s college kids.

I expand on some of my concern about the corruption of the word “safety” in my new short book Freedom From Speech, which was released today. In FFS (yes, I love what that acronym stands for on the internet as it seems so fitting to the topics discussed), I explain why, “I believe we are facing a long-term threat to freedom of speech that is much more substantial than the expansion of ‘liberal groupthink’ or ‘political correctness’ from campus.” In my opinion, threats to free speech are going to get worse, which only means that those of us who fight to preserve it are going to have to fight both better and harder.

And if you buy a copy using this link, my nonprofit, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), gets a small donation from Amazon.

Read them both and let me know what you think!

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  1. user_836033 Member

    In my experience, the school administrators are people who just want to take the path of least resistance.  Who is it more difficult to run afoul of, conservative students or liberal ones?  As an administrator, whom would you rather offend: the student pro-life group or the gay and lesbian student union?  The statement by Mr. Dirks seems carefully crafted to create the smallest waves beneath his own boat.   When I was in college, the gay student group started saying things that sounded as if they were questioning the right of people to publically disagree with them.  So some friends of mine and I posted signs around campus questioning homosexuality… and we signed our names.  We were “invited” to meet with a dean and three reps of the gay community.  To this day I wish we had turned down their invitation.  It accomplished nothing, but I could tell the dean didn’t really care one way or the other.  She just wanted to smooth things over.

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