In the 1960s, the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) became famous for its Free Speech Movement, during which students fought for the right to express themselves on campus. But today there is worrisome evidence that the university won’t lift a finger when freedom of speech is literally under attack. According to media reports, the Berkeley College Republicans were assaulted by protesters after they displayed a Donald Trump cutout at a tabling event on September 7—and nearby police did nothing to stop it.
The protesters allegedly yelled at the College Republicans and demanded the cutout be removed, claiming that it “represents hate.” After the club refused to remove the cutout, protesters reportedly tore it apart, shoved a club member who attempted to record the incident, and then yanked the phone out of his hand to end the recording.
Where were the campus police during this vandalism and harassment? According to club member Anthony Limon, campus police saw the event turn violent but just “sat around” and “didn’t do anything.” An officer reportedly eventually collected the club member’s phone containing the video recording, but there appears to have been no attempt to stop the aggression while it was happening.
If true, this lack of effort by the campus police sends an alarming message: All opinions may be theoretically welcomed at Berkeley, but if your group is attacked for espousing an unpopular viewpoint, the campus police won’t help you. A incident report is said to have been filed, so an investigation is presumably underway, but merely punishing wrongdoers after the fact is not sufficient.
Furthermore, this is not the first time this year violence appears to have been used at UC Berkeley to stifle speech. On March 2, at a forum to discuss Bay Area culture hosted by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich a panelist was assaulted by students. After Berkeley’s Student Labor Committee took credit for the assault, a group of Berkeley students, administrators, and professors denounced the group in a Daily Californian op-ed stating the following:
Violence has no place here. No matter what cause the disrupters may believe they are serving, it cannot justify the attempt to destroy a fundamental function (arguably the fundamental function) of the university — namely creating an open space for the free exchange of ideas.
That’s correct. Freedom of speech cannot survive at any college if students tabling for their political group are assaulted while the campus police idly stand by. Campus police officers play a vital role in upholding student free speech rights by preventing and addressing violent acts designed to silence students. Students should not have to fear for their personal safety when peacefully expressing their support for any candidate this election season (or on any other issue). Police officers’ most basic obligation is to protect the public from harm—even when expressing unpopular opinions. Failure to do so not only threatens the safety of individual community members, but will inevitably lead to a chilling of speech on campus.