Does ‘The Berkeley Experience’ Treat Students Like Children by Encouraging Protesters to Go Too Far?

July 9, 2010

University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor and FIRE friend Donald Downs published an excellent article yesterday on Minding the Campus. The article examines how the University of California, Berkeley, might have sown the seeds of its own chaos prior to violent protests last November and December, which even included a violent attack on Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s home.

Focusing on Berkeley’s report on these events, Don argues that Berkeley has drawn students who are interested to share in “The Berkeley Experience” of vehement protest dating back to the Free Speech Movement, but has failed to teach them that the rule of law applies in full when people are exercising their constitutional right to freedom of speech:

The crux of this matter boils down to the Report’s discussion of “The Berkeley experience.” The Report alludes to Berkeley’s dedication to encouraging students to speak out with emotion and intensity. So far, so good, as this encouragement has contributed to a vibrant, challenging environment. “In the minds of some students and faculty, these facts are an essential component of what it means to attend Berkeley. As some students have told us, one reason they joined the rally outside Wheeler on the 20th was their desire to have what they considered “‘the Berkeley experience.'”

Unfortunately, the Berkeley Experience also involves blurring the line between normal robust First Amendment conduct, which operates within the law, and lawless expressive conduct, which can range from respectful civil disobedience to forceful or even violent conduct that disrespects the rights of others. The Berkeley Experience “builds expectations about how demonstrators will be treated. It also tends to dilute, generally, attention to rules–and to obscure from the vision of some people how significantly some violations of some rules can affect the rights and the legitimate interests of other people.”

[…] By failing to respect and enforce these limits, Berkeleyhowever well intentionedappears to have failed in its educational mission in the realm of free speech; for a truly free system of speech cannot exist unless the rights of all citizensdemonstrators, those opposed to the demonstrators, and those who simply don’t careare respected and protected. In the absence of such universal protection and respect, political bullies can run roughshod over the rights of others, making a mockery of the free flow of ideas.


[…] We tend to forget that the student revolts of the ’60s were first preoccupied with the elimination of in loco parentis, which treated students as pre-adults, not the young adults that they are. Did it occur to the advocates of the Berkeley Experience that its policy of partial tolerance toward lawlessness might amount to treating its students like children?


The confusions epitomized by the Berkeley Experience have had consequences at Berkeley and elsewhere. … (Ask the Daily Californian how many times entire runs of its paper have been stolen from stands because of articles or editorials deemed politically incorrect.) Equally importantly, failure to respect the legal obligations implicit in the systemic exercise of free speech no doubt contributed to the widespread violations of free thought and due process that have accompanied the imposition of speech codes, overly-broad harassment codes, and related policies in higher education in recent decades. What Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate called the “betrayal of liberty on America’s campuses” in The Shadow University (1998) was, at least in part, the consequence of the misunderstanding lying at the heart of the Berkeley Experience and its adherents nation-wide. Why worry about the rights of others when an important political cause is at stake?

FIRE intern Casey Given, a Berkeley undergrad, adds that some students are still breaking the law when they protest. In February, according to Casey, “Trash cans were lit on fire, dumpsters were hurled at police, and business windows were smashed.” He offers this video of the February violence.

Don has written much more that’s worth readingclick over to Minding the Campus for the whole article.

Schools:  University of California, Berkeley