Free Speech: A Dissenting Voice

Mr Sessions. I respectfully disagree.

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As a professor at UC Berkeley, I was faced with a difficult choice last week. Should I respect the academic boycott called by all responsible parties on campus, including the professors association and my union? Or should I respect my students’ right to the education they signed up for when they agreed to attend Cal?

Just to make sure, I checked with my priest on Sunday. “Would it be OK if I held class in Fellowship Hall or, if necessary, in the sanctuary?” “Absolutely.”

During past disturbances, Saint Mark’s has always been my salvation — both literally and figuratively. And not for me only. It is also a declared sanctuary for refugees, Muslims, and others on the right wing “hit list.” And so it has also become sanctuary for my students and for me when, for reasons of conscience, we cannot hold class on campus.

But, that is not my problem. My problem is that, unlike the Attorney General, I do not support free speech. Yes, the US Government has an obligation to uphold free speech. And, so, clearly, President Trump is in violation of the US Constitution when he opposes the right of private sports figures to express their opposition to public violence against people of color. His statements are an impeachable offense.

But, consider the case of the heart surgeon who finds support among students who do not embrace western anatomy. They have formed a club: the One Ventricle Club. They believe it is their right to invite the “one ventricle surgeon” to address the medical school: freedom of speech! “Western medicine” holds a strangle-hold over medical schools, they cry. Medical students who embrace “one ventricle” are being silenced!

Obviously this poor analogy does not pass muster. Particularly in the humanities, but also in the social sciences, a wide range of views have occupied center stage over the centuries. Political Science or Sociology or Economics, to say nothing about Literature, are not subject to the same standards as open heart surgery. So, it is held, most recently by the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, that we should reinstitute “free speech” on our campuses.

“Protesters are now routinely shutting down speeches and debates across the country in an effort to silence voices that insufficiently conform with their views.”

Of course, the “views” Jeff Sessions has in mind are those of Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Steven Bannon, who, collectively, enjoy the same intellectual integrity as my smelly sock. (Indeed, without success, I have seriously tried to register my smelly sock as an official student organization so that it could address our students in Zellerbach Hall.)

College is not a political Petri Dish. It is not an experiment, either for want-to-be open heart surgeons or for want-to-be political actors. College, at its best, is where students master the canon — whatever that canon happens to be when they enter college. We may hope that our institutions are not teaching eighteenth century open heart surgery. So, we may also hope that our literature, history, and economics departments are no longer instructing students as though Great Britain still ruled the seas. Times change. And with the times so too must change what and how we instruct our students. But this has never meant and can never mean that “anything goes.”

The State of California has commissioned us as officers of the State to grant degrees to students based upon our own mastery of our fields of study. When students from the “One Ventricle Society” invite a heart surgeon to address the merits of one ventricle medicine, the regents have an obligation to say “No.” This falls outside of our charge. Similarly, when right wing student groups invite Ann Coulter, or Steven Bannon, or Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus, these individuals are the academic equivalents of the “One Ventricle Society.” They hold as much standing in the academy as my smelly sock.

Stated differently, as republican values and institutions are eclipsed by outright fascism, our institutions of higher learning are under an obligation to understand how this has happened. But they are under no obligation to facilitate the coup d’etat.

This is not to say that students should not be permitted to form a “One Ventricle Society.” More power to them. It is only to say that any medical school that entertained their idiocy deserves its accreditation withdrawn. Ditto Coulter, Bannon, and Yiannopoulos.

One thought on “Free Speech: A Dissenting Voice”

  1. To be clear, you’re suggesting that public institutions have a responsibility to discriminate against who they invite to speak on their premises; you’re not arguing that the 1st amendment should be overturned, yes? I think I can go with that. Though, I have to say, I’m not sure what efforts by protesters to prevent the likes of Milo speaking, once they have been granted permission to do so by the university, are supposed to achieve. It seem to just provide fuel for the right-wing fire. You might find yourself in at least partial agreement with Brian Leiter on this:

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