Going in reverse down free-speech road?

March 8, 2014

By Jeff Jardine at The Modesto Bee

Fifty years ago this fall, the Free Speech Movement rocked the UC Berkeley campus.

The short version: It represented a clash between school/government officials who sought to stop students from promoting and raising funds for political causes on the campus by declaring rules prohibiting such activities would be strictly enforced. The administrators, in essence, had created a double standard: The military could set up recruiting stations on campus as the Vietnam War ramped up, yet students were told they couldn’t set up tables at the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph avenues.

What began as an orderly protest became a confrontation when the university began disciplining participating students. And when an ex-student named Jack Weinberg didn’t produce a student ID card, the ground rules changed.

“They did the dumbest thing they could have done,” said Jim Branson, a student at the time and a member of the Daily Cal newspaper staff. “They brought in a (patrol) car. They put Weinberg inside it with a cop. The students sat down around the car.”

And stayed there for 32 hours, surrounded by as many as 3,000 people who refused to leave until charges against Weinberg were dropped. The administration blinked first. Free speech and civil rights advocates won that round because they understood and believed in their cause, defying politicians and administrators who sought to stifle dissent. But free speech conflicts continue to this day.

Clearly, the pendulum has swung back to the government’s side, aided in no small part by the Patriot Act of 2001. Some, Branson included, cite the end of the military draft in 1973 as the beginning of apathy in this country that shows up in poor election turnouts and a declining interest in politics and activism at all levels. When the draft ended, the worry about being forcibly sent off to war went with it. Governments at all levels have regained much of their power to restrict or erode free speech and limit the flow of information to the public, and not just at the federal and state levels. Local government agencies exploit their ability to control the time, place and manner of free speech. They routinely ignore the spirit of open government. Some recent examples:

• The front page of Friday’s Modesto Bee detailed how the state will hold a hearing on the selection of the new Stanislaus County Courthouse site. The meeting will be Wednesday in San Francisco. Yes, 89 miles away in San Francisco. Apparently, the Russian naval base in Crimea wasn’t available. Are you going to take a day off of work to attend? I didn’t think so.

And if you do go and want to speak, or want to comment in writing, you need to apply by Tuesday and include more personal information than the hackers stole from Target.

If the state really wanted input, they’d move the meeting to Modesto so residents could attend. They don’t. Pair that with the city of Modesto’s out-of-public view, backroom dealing to build the courthouse specifically on the block bordered by Ninth, 10th, G and H streets rather than the Bee building (which McClatchy sold several years ago) at 13th and H, and it would make a racy “Government Gone Wild” video.

• An ongoing flap at Modesto Junior College began when school employees prohibited a student from distributing copies of that subversive document known as the U.S. Constitution – you know, the one with all of those amendment thingies that protect, among other things, free speech. Why? Because he wasn’t in the “free speech zone” painted on a sidewalk, hadn’t received permission from school officials to distribute the document and hadn’t booked the free speech zone for that day (on bookmyfreespeechzone.com?). An organization called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education filed a lawsuit against the district on behalf of the student, Rob Van Tuinen, and the Yosemite Community College District agreed to settle the issue with a $50,000 check and a revised policy that expands the free speech area and eliminates the permission slip and reservations process.

• In 2012, the city of Modesto reacted to complaints about an annoying sidewalk preacher at Tenth Street Place by establishing a free speech zone – bright yellow and bearing the words “Designated Free Speech Area” – at the Transportation Center along Ninth Street. I’ll give them this much credit: At least they didn’t place it smack dab in the middle of the Union Pacific train tracks on the other side of the wall. I wrote about the zone. A city crew repainted it green a day later, which, in my out-of-the-box opinion, was a waste of staff time and green paint. Arrest me.

Activism, though, isn’t dead. It just happens primarily when people are directly and financially affected. And it can’t possibly succeed unless there is an end game. About 300 residents and supporters of Wood Colony and Salida showed up at a Modesto City Council meeting in late January to protest the city’s plan to incorporate the historic farming area into its long-range commercial and industrial development plans. They used Facebook and other social media to organize, inform, unite and encourage attendance and participation at council and town hall meetings. They got the council’s attention by talking recall, and they promise not to let up until the city removes the area altogether from its general plan update.

And customers in the Oakdale Irrigation District overflowed the boardroom in January to protest a proposed water sale to the Westlands district in the Southern San Joaquin Valley. The board backed off from the sale, which it had intended to discuss quietly in closed session during a special meeting.

These seemingly small victories at the local level suggest that the weaponry politicians and administrators understand, too often resent but definitely should fear are at your disposal: personal interest in the issues; computers or cellphones; Facebook friends; and most of all, votes.

Use them. Otherwise, don’t blame government officials for stifling your free speech rights – you’ve done it for them.

Schools: Modesto Junior College Cases: Modesto Junior College: Students Barred from Distributing Constitutions on Constitution Day