Free speech! Hold firm!

We must affirm and protect the First and 14th amendments to the Constitution with everything we have.

Bettina Aptheker

The Free Speech Movement (FSM) at UC Berkeley in fall 1964 involved upwards of 20,000 students before it was over, and more than 800 of the Berkeley faculty voted in support of its demands at its Academic Senate meeting on Dec. 8, 1964. The FSM coalition spanned the political spectrum at the time from the Young Republicans to the Young Socialists, to communists, to students variously affiliated with civil rights, religious, and environmental groups. As a result the Regents of the University of California revised their regulations that had previously banned communists and “controversial speakers” from visiting the campus, and prevented students from holding rallies, distributing literature, and posting fliers.

The Regents affirmed that henceforth their regulations would not go beyond the purview of the First and 14th amendments to the United States Constitution. Only the time, place, and manner of speech would be subject to regulation so as not to disrupt classes or the flow of pedestrian traffic and so forth. Registered student organizations, departments and so on needed only to request permits for their events in a timely manner. This movement effectively marked the end of the last remnants of the “McCarthy period” in which scores of faculty had been fired for refusing to sign “loyalty oaths,” and in which hundreds and thousands of folks across the country had lost their jobs and been blacklisted. From this point of view, historians generally mark FSM as a kind of watershed in re-establishing democratic traditions and First Amendment rights in the country.

FSM is also often cited as the first mass movement of what became the New Left, riding on the strength of the black-led civil rights movement that climaxed with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. FSM was credited with inaugurating northern student protests against the Vietnam War. For these reasons, among others, Berkeley emerged as an iconic symbol of radical and liberal politics.

Within weeks of the inauguration of Donald Trump, therefore, it is not at all surprising that the “alt-right” led by Milo Yiannopoulos determined to hijack the issue of “free speech.” Acting on invitations from a rightist student organization, he and Ann Coulter tried to speak on campus in February 2017. While hundreds and hundreds of students assembled to peacefully protest their presence because of their racist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic hate speech, a smaller group known as antifa—shorthand for anti-fascist—engaged in disruptive street actions that shut the events down altogether because the university felt it could not “guarantee their safety.”

Shortly after this, Yiannopolous was widely denounced and forced to resign his position as a senior editor of Breitbart News when he condoned and seemed to advocate the legitimacy of sexual relations between 13-year-old boys and adult men and women. The Conservative Political Action Conference cancelled an invitation for him to speak, and Simon and Schuster publishers cancelled their book contract with him. Neither Yiannopolous nor anyone else accused the Conservative Political Action Conference or Simon and Schuster of infringing on his rights of free speech. Presumably, however, UC Berkeley, as both a public university and an iconic symbol, falls under a different standard.

In August, Yiannopolous announced that he was coming back to UC Berkeley under auspices of a student group called Berkeley Patriots. And as provocatively as possible, garnering considerable press, announced that many others from the “alt-right” would join him including Coulter, Ben Shapiro, and Steve Bannon, lately of the White House, for what he called a “Free Speech Week.” He also declared that he was going to award Coulter the first Mario Savio Free Speech Award (Savio led the FSM in 1964). At the same time, and with the same kind of deliberate and provocative bravado, he proclaimed that, “Mario Savio Is Dead.” For those of us who knew and loved Mario, including his widow, Lynne Hollander, these were particularly vicious statements. Buttons appeared on the campus a few days later, in the blue and white colors of FSM that proclaimed, “Mario Lives.”

In this uproar, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said the campus would provide whatever security was necessary to guarantee the “alt-right” their right of free speech. In the end the campus spent more than $800,000 for “security.” Whether or not this was necessary, one can see that the real purpose of the “alt-right” was to attack the integrity of the university itself under the guise of free speech.

Meanwhile, a considerable number of Berkeley faculty called upon the administration to ban the “alt-right,” citing, with considerable credibility, their hate-filled, racist and trans-phobic speech. Progressive students meanwhile, with tremendous effort and keen political acuity, put together a coalition of more than 30 student organizations. They, in fact, held a rally of hundreds from noon to 2 p.m. on Crescent Lawn against white supremacy and to “Defend Our Campus/Reclaim Free Speech” on Sept. 25. At the same time, press reported that 25-30 people attended a speech by Yiannopolous on Sproul Hall Plaza that was not sponsored by anyone, and therefore had no sound amplification. The student group, Berkeley Patriots, had withdrawn its invitation. There was no Free Speech Week, and the speakers announced as part of it had either never heard of it, or had declined the invitation (except for Shapiro, a Brietbart writer, and a lawyer). Over the next couple of days, the “alt-right” held impromptu rallies with a handful of people, marched to People’s Park, and back to the campus, and three anti-fascist organizers, including Yvette Felarca, a veteran of the anti-racist group BAMN (By Any Means Necessary) were arrested on misdemeanor charges. And an “alt-right” provocateur was arrested on felony charges for carrying an illegal weapon, a leaded stick.

I have carefully rehearsed this sequence of events, and placed them in the context of the legacy of the Free Speech Movement in order to demonstrate as clearly as possible that the alt-right hijacked the issue of free speech, about which they know nothing, and could care less, as a huge distraction. Their aim seemed to be to attack the university itself, embarrass progressives, and garner as much publicity as they could while essentially engaging in a provocative, hate-filled, racist bluff. As in Boston, when they tried a similar tactic in early summer, their non-events were dwarfed by the hundreds and thousands of people, of all hues, ethnicities, genders and political persuasions, who came out to affirm an anti-racist, pro-immigration, pro-gay free speech agenda.

In my view this is how to deal with the alt-right and their ilk. Dwarf their events with non-violent mass movements of unprecedented size and inspired coalition.

I believe we must affirm and protect the First and 14th amendments to the Constitution with everything we have. Under these amendments all the rights we have won, however contested they may be now, from the civil rights laws, to voting rights, to affirmative action, to gay rights, to reproductive rights and many more are under the aegis of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

And our right and ability to organize, assemble, protest, publish, and freely practice religion are protected by the First Amendment. The alt-right, and Trump ideologues, the neo-Nazis and Klan surrogates would have us fall into a trap to limit the purview of protections. Once limited it will be the progressive and radical movements, the anti-racist, and pro-immigration movements, the gay and lesbian and transgender movements that will be its first victims. Even while these amendments are still intact the U.S. Supreme Court, in its new fall 2017 session, is deluged with legal efforts to further gut even the limited protections of civil and human rights that have been won.

Hold firm to the First and 14th. With warmth and strength.