Does “Free Speech” TRUMP All Else?
A Response to Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ

by Sunsara Taylor, with writing group

September 11, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


Berkeley has emerged in the cross-hairs of fascists. In particular, Ben Shapiro, an intellectual advocate for fascism, and Milo Yiannopoulos, an outright fascist provocateur, are scheduled to appear on campus this month.

In response to the outrage and the controversy, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ issued an open letter* extolling the principle of “free speech” as a rationale for providing a “protected” platform to these fascists. This letter is full of the reasoning that hamstrings and befuddles all too many people who should be resisting and for this reason we are reprinting Christ’s letter and taking on her arguments.

What “Events” in Charlottesville Do—and Do Not—Make More Urgent

» Christ begins: “Events in Charlottesville, with their racism, bigotry, violence and mayhem, make the issue of free speech even more tense.”

No. “Events” in Charlottesville, including the cold-blooded murder of Heather Heyer by a fascist thug, make clear both that white supremacy remains the animating force it has been in American political and social life—and that this has been immeasurably strengthened and made more dangerous by the ascension to power of Trump and Pence. Fascist thugs chant “blood and soil,” wave Confederate flags, and brandish automatic weapons and are backed by the presidential bully pulpit of a fascist regime. All this makes the need to fight fascism—and its consolidation—even more urgent.

Fascism is the issue, not “free speech.” Refuse has called for mass protests and actions starting November 4, aimed at driving this regime from power.

A Bitterly Ironic Perversion of “Free Speech” and an Open Threat Against It

» Christ continues: “The law is very clear,” she says, invoking the First Amendment to rationalize giving a platform to the fascists, and she goes on to warn that “The university has the responsibility to provide safety and security for its community and guests, and we will invest the necessary resources to achieve that goal.”

Yes, the law IS very clear: the government cannot suppress speech, but nowhere does it say that universities must pay fascists thousands of dollars and provide them with tremendous security so that they can mobilize their lynch mobs. Christ is distorting the law. Going further, in the name of protecting free speech, the university has now officially “locked down” the campus to prevent protests against these fascists. Halls closed, classes rescheduled, IDs required. An “increased and highly visible” police force will enforce this “perimeter” and has already requested permission to use pepper spray against protesters. So Christ wants to provide a platform to the fascists, but not to the protesters!

Christ goes on to say that “If you choose to protest, do so peacefully. That is your right, and we will defend it with vigor. We will not tolerate violence, and we will hold anyone accountable who engages in it.” As we know, when it comes to defining violence, the authorities have a very “flexible” standard depending on who is doing the protesting. So let’s translate that last sentence from bureaucratese: “these fascists will speak and if you disrupt them we will use the power of the state to arrest you.”

No! Students and others have the right to protest, and yes, the right to shut this down! Students have the right to make the entire campus a fascist-free zone, not just carve out “safe spaces” off in margins while fascists occupy public plazas and lecture halls.


» Christ centers her argument on the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s call for the contestation of ideas, of “public expression of many sharply divergent points of view.” She states that two points are fundamental:

  • “truth is of such power that it will always ultimately prevail; any abridgment of argument therefore compromises the opportunity of exchanging error for truth”
  • “an extreme skepticism about the right of any authority to determine which opinions are noxious or abhorrent. Once you embark on the path to censorship, you make your own speech vulnerable to it.”

Let’s examine these claims—against reality and history.

How long has it taken before “the truth ultimately prevailed” that Black people are not an inferior race, three-fifths of a human, or deserved to be enslaved? The lie of white superiority rationalized the monstrous crime of slavery—and this same ideology continues today in this still very much white supremacist society, now turbocharged with a fascist regime in power. Far from having “prevailed” in practice, this truth is now under violent assault, justified by the likes of both Shapiro and Yiannopoulos.

How long has it taken before “the truth ultimately prevailed” that women are not “the second sex,” subordinate to men and meant to serve them, solely as objects of pleasure or servitude? We have Trump—the Molester in Chief—and we have Mike Pence, with his handmaid's-tale morality and the ascension of theocrats like Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Breitbart—which both Shapiro and Yiannopoulos worked for—orchestrated online campaigns of such violence against women who spoke out, that some of them were forced to hire security. Far from this truth having prevailed, UC Berkeley finds itself financing and protecting two people who fervently propagate the lie.

How long has it taken before “the truth ultimately prevailed” that America is not a force for good in the world, but one that commits horrific crimes—genocide of Native Americans; slavery; brutal occupations of the Philippines; nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; massacring millions in Vietnam and Iraq; instigating coups in Iran, Chile, Indonesia, Guatemala, Haiti; committing torture; organizing right-wing death squads and dictators throughout Latin America; and the list goes on? Undeniable to any dispassionate examiner of the facts, this truth remains not only contested but shoved to the margins.

On all this, we recommend Bob Avakian’s recent talk, The Problem, the Solution, and the Challenges Before Us, where he goes deeply into how people in countries like the U.S. have been systematically lied to and indoctrinated with complete and profound lies, and an errant worldview, on the history of this country—from its founding all the way to the present.

The Power Behind the Lies

Monstrous crimes are committed in the name of these lies—the same lies these fascists are being given a platform to propagate on campuses. These ideas are backed by powerful reactionary forces, funded in think tanks, and given voice in their propaganda organs. As we wrote in our open letter to the Berkeley community, Shapiro mocked Trayvon Martin on what would have been his 21st birthday, said poverty among Black people is a result of Black culture, Arabs “like to bomb stuff and live in open sewage,” being transgender is a “mental illness,” and abortion is akin to the Holocaust. Milo’s vile white supremacy and hatred of Muslims and immigrants is well documented. Even if not marching with tiki-torch flames chanting “Jews will not replace us,” as the Nazis did in Charlottesville, make no mistake, these are fascism’s thugs and enablers.

There is a direct line between these falsehoods and policies to enforce them, with the state apparatus now in fascist hands—from Sessions’ policies on imposing mandatory sentencing to lock away Black and Latino youths or Pence’s “election integrity” commission designed to steal the franchise from Black people, to the Christian fascists’ policies to take away the rights to abortion and gay marriage, to this regime’s literally genocidal threats of total annihilation against North Korea and Iran, to their deportation of immigrants and banning of Muslims. This is not just about the “free expression of ideas” disconnected from harmful societal consequences. This is the highly financed, highly publicized and highly protected dissemination of fascist ideas to serve a fascist regime, in which those who dare to oppose those ideas are threatened with the sharp edge of the state.

Christ Sinks into Relativism and Exchanges Truth for Error

Further: Christ’s claim that “any abridgment of argument therefore compromises the opportunity of exchanging error for truth,” simply does not apply for arguments incontrovertibly false, settled, and therefore harmful to keep propagating.

How does “the abridgment of argument” for creationism “compromise the opportunity of exchanging error for the truth” of evolution? How does “the abridgment of argument” for the inferiority of Black people, or Arabs, or Latinos, or for depriving women or LGBTQ people of their rights, “compromise the opportunity of exchanging error for truth?” These are patently false arguments—with no contribution towards the search for truth, “exchanging error for truth!”

Christ’s “extreme skepticism of the right of any authority to determine which opinions are noxious or abhorrent,” and fear of “censorship,” her open relativism in this case, is merely a device to avoid exercising the moral courage to call out fascism for what it is—noxious and abhorrent! She makes the excuse that she will be sued if the she does not provide the fascists with a paid and protected platform. Memo to Christ: so fucking what if you’re sued, people are dying because of these ideas right now, and exponentially more will, as fascism advances with this regime and its intellectual and street thugs! And that's why Donald Trump Jr. tweeted about Shapiro's visit to Berkeley.

The absurdity of Christ’s claim becomes patently clear against the actual opinions in question—for example, the inferiority of Arabs, Latinos, Black people, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, naked white supremacy and misogyny. Would she express this same “extreme skepticism” as Jews were being transported to the gas chambers under Nazism? Actually, that is precisely what all too many people in her position did do in Nazi Germany, until it was too late.

The simple question for Chancellor Christ: Did the free speech of the Nazis TRUMP the Holocaust of six million Jewish people, and others?

How Christ Misses What Is Correct in Mill and Then Turns Her Error into an Absolute

» As we examine Christ's claims, we should recognize that Mill’s overall argument on ardent advocates engaging in the contestation of ideas is crucial. In fact, Bob Avakian has emphasized the importance of Mill’s point to the search for the truth, as a critical component of the new communism that he has forged. However, Mill’s principle is not “an absolute,” trumping all circumstances—and in fact, more fundamentally in this instance, his overall argument on contestation of ideas does not underlie Christ’s specific claims and rationalizations above.

As stated in “The Middlebury Controversy: Points of Orientation” (students at Middlebury College courageously and righteously shut down white supremacist Charles Murray from speaking on campus), Mill’s principle is critically important for the dissemination and critical evaluation of poorly known and/or unpopular ideas in general, and especially if these are ideas which the dominant forces and relations of society (including the ruling state apparatus) do not favor, and actively work to discredit, contain or actively suppress. In this society, especially with this fascist regime in power, “Do climate change deniers, Holocaust deniers, Nazis and KKKers, anti-abortionists, white supremacists, creationists and so on... do they really need to be given additional platforms and extended respectful invitations to spread their views on campuses?”

Who gets widely known and has platforms in society, including at Cal, is constrained and conditioned by the dominant class interests and class power in capitalist-imperialist society, and by the dominant ideas—including white supremacy, misogyny, and ugly xenophobia—that have been “baked into” the nerves, muscles and sinews of that power in the U.S.

This is the “free marketplace of ideas” at work in capitalist society, and a good example of why that “marketplace”—like the capitalist market that gives it its metaphor—in actual practice reproduces relations of power and domination, silences the powerless, and contributes to ignorance and/or reactionary thinking on major political and social questions. Arrayed against massive funding, think tanks, control of the media and the academy, those who represent the dispossessed are in most cases effectively rendered voiceless and marginalized unless they shape their ideas to those dominant interests.

Further, it is a myth that the free contestation of ideas—and people’s ability to “compare and contrast” and engage in critical thinking—can ONLY take place through orderly respectful engagement. In cases where, in the face of disproportionate power, influence, and official backing of one side of the contestation (e.g., these fascists, backed by the university administration and ultimately dovetailing with the prevailing ideas of the dominant institutions of society), the other side (in this case the relatively powerless students and others) choosing to resist rather than engage in a “respectful and orderly” way can actually lead to MORE and quite vigorous engagement with the contested ideas in the period following. As stated in “The Middlebury Controversy: Points of Orientation,” “A correct protest can definitely fuel further engagement and contestation, and it is a myth that this just serves to ‘suppress’ ideas!”


» Finally, for the outrageous lie: Carol Christ portrays the famed Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM) as essentially a coalition of “left-wing and right-wing students.”

No, Chancellor Christ, that movement was led by students who had been part of or were inspired by the civil rights struggle in the South. “Right wingers” had nothing to do with it, besides opposing it. And it was repressed by people like you, who did what you have threatened to do to those who stand up against fascism today: call out the police on the students, who brutalized and arrested them.

Marx once said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Here the situation is different—far from being tragic, the Free Speech Movement of 1964 was a great advance, won at the cost of real sacrifice. Now Christ wants to falsely and farcically invoke that very history to grease the way to what would be a very real tragedy: the advance of fascism in America.

The times demand that we return and bring forward the true spirit of the Free Speech Movement, embodied in Mario Savio’s famous quote: “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even tacitly take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop and you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

*The following is the text of Chancellor Christ’s letter, dated August 23:

Dear students, faculty and staff,

This fall, the issue of free speech will once more engage our community in powerful and complex ways. Events in Charlottesville, with their racism, bigotry, violence and mayhem, make the issue of free speech even more tense. The law is very clear: Public institutions like UC Berkeley must permit speakers invited in accordance with campus policies to speak, without discrimination in regard to point of view. The United States has the strongest free speech protections of any liberal democracy; the First Amendment protects even speech that most of us would find hateful, abhorrent and odious, and the courts have consistently upheld these protections.

But the most powerful argument for free speech is not one of legal constraint — that we’re required to allow it — but of value. The public expression of many sharply divergent points of view is fundamental both to our democracy and to our mission as a university. The philosophical justification underlying free speech, most powerfully articulated by John Stuart Mill in his book On Liberty, rests on two basic assumptions. The first is that truth is of such power that it will always ultimately prevail; any abridgement of argument therefore compromises the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. The second is an extreme skepticism about the right of any authority to determine which opinions are noxious or abhorrent. Once you embark on the path to censorship, you make your own speech vulnerable to it.

Berkeley, as you know, is the home of the Free Speech Movement, where students on the right and students on the left united to fight for the right to advocate political views on campus. Particularly now, it is critical that the Berkeley community come together once again to protect this right. It is who we are.

Nonetheless, defending the right of free speech for those whose ideas we find offensive is not easy. It often conflicts with the values we hold as a community — tolerance, inclusion, reason and diversity. Some constitutionally protected speech attacks the very identity of particular groups of individuals in ways that are deeply hurtful. However, the right response is not the heckler’s veto, or what some call platform denial. Call toxic speech out for what it is, don’t shout it down, for in shouting it down, you collude in the narrative that universities are not open to all speech. Respond to hate speech with more speech.

We all desire safe space, where we can be ourselves and find support for our identities. You have the right at Berkeley to expect the university to keep you physically safe. But we would be providing students with a less valuable education, preparing them less well for the world after graduation, if we tried to shelter them from ideas that many find wrong, even dangerous. We must show that we can choose what to listen to, that we can cultivate our own arguments and that we can develop inner resilience, which is the surest form of safe space. These are not easy tasks, and we will offer support services for those who desire them.

This September, Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos have both been invited by student groups to speak at Berkeley. The university has the responsibility to provide safety and security for its community and guests, and we will invest the necessary resources to achieve that goal. If you choose to protest, do so peacefully. That is your right, and we will defend it with vigor. We will not tolerate violence, and we will hold anyone accountable who engages in it.

We will have many opportunities this year to come together as a Berkeley community over the issue of free speech; it will be a free speech year.  We have already planned a student panel, a faculty panel and several book talks. Bridge USA and the Center for New Media will hold a day-long conference on Oct. 5; PEN, the international writers’ organization, will hold a free speech convening in Berkeley on Oct. 23. We are planning a series in which people with sharply divergent points of view will meet for a moderated discussion. Free speech is our legacy, and we have the power once more to shape this narrative.  [back]



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