Former FIRE Intern Urges UC Berkeley to Live Up to its Reputation

November 16, 2010

Former FIRE Intern and current University of California at Berkeley junior Casey Given has written an excellent column for The Daily Californian about censorship on campus. Torch readers might remember Given’s August blog post criticizing the Berkeley Administration for failing to punish acts of civil disobedience. In his Daily Californian column, he laments the divergence between Berkeley’s perceived image as a beacon of free speech and the much sadder reality.

To most outsiders, "Berkeley" is synonymous with "free speech." Simply uttering our university’s name to them conjures up images of bearded bohemians and flower children peacefully rallying for a hippie cause of the past. Indeed, to this very day, our school is still envisioned as a utopia of free speech, where discourse of all sorts is allowed to flourish. And why should anyone think differently? Campus monuments like the Mario Savio Steps of Sproul Plaza and the Free Speech Movement Cafe reinforce our campus’s reputation of being dedicated to unrestricted expression.

Unfortunately, this idealized vision is becoming more fiction than fact nowadays, as free speech violations on campus have been on the rise recently.

This greatly displeases Given, who cites two cases that reflect the unfortunate state of free speech on campus. First, Given defends a student’s constitutional right to curse at a police officer:

Take, for example, an incident that occurred in Dwinelle Plaza on the 22nd of last month. Officer Sean Aranas of the University of California Police Department was riding his bicycle in the university’s "Dismount Zone," a designated area of campus where cyclists are prohibited from riding their vehicles, when fourth year James Allen yelled at him, "Walk your fucking bicycle!" Aranas then proceeded to issue Allen a Student Conduct Incident Referral. Although on its face it would seem like cursing at a cop may be illegal, it is nevertheless protected under the First Amendment. 

Whether or not you approve of swearing at the cops, it’s a rare person who supports having the police punish citizens for activities that aren’t actually against the law. Fortunately, this case had a happy ending and all charges against Allen were eventually dropped. Given then comments (as has FIRE) on the illegality and immorality of a recent incident of newspaper theft at The Daily Californian:

On the morning of Oct. 28, 3,000 copies of The Daily Californian were stolen from a sidewalk on Bancroft Avenue before arriving at their distribution points. Although it may seem like taking an excessive number of free newspapers is legal, it is indeed a breach of expression law under an ordinance that the Berkeley City Council approved in 2003, after Mayor Tom Bates similarly stole 1,000 copies of The Daily Californian during election season. Freedom of the press for centuries has been considered to be a vital foundation to our American democracy, hence why it is enumerated in our First Amendment. Thus, this theft marks yet another illiberal attempt to censor students’ voices. (Link added)

Given concludes by expounding the necessity of free speech and rallying his fellow Golden Bears to close the gap between the perception and reality of free speech at UC Berkeley.

As California Golden Bears, we should be proud of our university’s rich history of free speech. However, we must be ever vigilant to ensure that our reputation is an accurate reflection of reality. Freedom of expression is not a static state of liberty that cannot be undone, but rather is an enduring goal that we must constantly fight for.

These recent attacks on free speech are not just mild infringements; rather, they symbolize an assault on our right as freethinking individuals to actively and knowledgeably engage with the world around us. Perhaps our very own Mario Savio put it best when he said, "Freedom of speech is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is."

Let us make sure that we are never stripped of our dignity.   

FIRE encourages everyone to read the article in full and thanks Casey for keeping up the good fight!

Schools:  University of California, Berkeley