Freedom of speech must apply to all speakers
The controversy at UC Berkeley that followed the request to invite—and then disinvite—Bill Maher to deliver commencement remarks in December leaves me unmoved. Increasingly in recent years, we've seen controversies like this break out on campuses across the country as critics of various speakers seek to retract invitations and deny invitees high-visibility speaking opportunities. I remain convinced that the only way to protect the fundamental freedom of speech is to support every individual's right to express his or her views. Moreover, I believe college and university campuses have a particular obligation to provide platforms for diverse viewpoints.
That doesn't mean I'll be swayed by the views of particular speakers, or even that I'll enjoy hearing what they have to say. But I have always felt strongly that everyone deserves the right to speak, and those who want to listen deserve that opportunity, as well.
I remember one particular anti-war demonstration at UC San Diego during my years there as a graduate student. A large, angry crowd had formed in Revelle Plaza, the campus's central gathering spot, and the chancellor was trying to address the crowd. I was strongly opposed to the war and had, in fact, helped organize the first anti-war protest in San Diego (which at the time was a politically conservative city). Chancellor William McGill was known for engaging with students during frequent noontime protests, but on this day, the crowd shouted him down and he wasn't allowed to speak.
I remember a friend of mine, a fellow grad student, calling from the edge of the crowd to let McGill speak: "He's been hearing us, so let's hear what he has to say." At that, the crowd quieted, and McGill was able to address the gathering.
Years later, McGill wrote about the encounter in his memoir The Year of the Monkey: Revolt on Campus 1968-69. He felt it was wrong that he'd been shouted down, not because he was chancellor but because he deserved to be heard, just like anyone else. He was grateful for the lone voice of support he'd heard that afternoon. And I was pleased to tell him many years later who that lone voice was.
Over the years, I've appreciated others who have stepped up in a variety of venues to defend the rights of those who wish to be heard. Personally, I have tried to keep the channels of communication open, even—or perhaps especially—during raucous meetings, whether it is a student forum, a senate meeting, or even a Regents meeting. As chancellor, I have been the target of those whose goal was to silence me. Although I have occasionally seethed internally during tense exchanges, I believe fundamentally in the value of public debate. Far more often, I have felt proud of my colleagues and our students as they have engaged in the respectful exchange of ideas. I've always felt that the more we communicate, the better.
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