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Free Speech is not the Free Speech Movement

I was walking past People’s Park when I heard an elderly resident remarked remarked at my tie-dye shirt I was wearing, “You know, it takes more than a tie dye shirt to be a hippie.” This decidedly Berkeley take on the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is as relevant a political critique as ever. In an age and political atmosphere where cursory glances masquerade as research and feelings have become facts, staying attuned to your arithmetic and measuring what makes that whole truly whole has never been of greater priority. Should Milo have been allowed to speak is a whole debate unto itself. I’m concerned with the label attached to Milo, Berkeley College Republicans and their crew. “The New Free Speech Movement,” they call themselves. In civil arguments, it’s important to who you arguing against, who they are and what they represent. We aren’t arguing against a new Free Speech Movement. Just because your event is loud, causes controversy, and happens to have some speech involved does not make it part of the FSM. The sum of the components on February 1st don’t represent the whole that is the FSM.

There are debates to be had about methods of protest, the extent of what constitutes free speech vs. hate speech, University policy etc. Likewise, there is room to critique what can sometimes feel like monolithic campus politics, but let’s not forget what is actually referenced when pundits, provocateurs and protestors alike refer to the Free Speech Movement (FSM). FSM was grounded in a demand to allow political discussions and debate to be displayed on campus during a time in which the University was supposed to be sterile of politics. The Cold War was alive and well when the FSM occurred. Any professor or student who critiqued dominant discourse was socially shunned, likely fired and added to FBI blacklists. God forbid anyone dissent, much less offer an alternative modernity to that of post-war military industrial complex America. There is a stark difference between having your beliefs be subject to constant debate and having the public expression of your beliefs banned.

The Free Speech Movement itself was not a quiet affair. On the contrary, it was a movement centered around disruption and protest. Inviting a provocative speaker to campus then decrying any sort of student or faculty opposition is in no way an authentic representation of a movement built upon dissent. Unlike student protesters of 1964, who by the order of the Dean of Students were banned from using Sproul Plaza to organize support for “off campus political and social action,” today’s students enjoy what by the standards of the ‘60s looks to be an almost luxurious amount of speech. Dissent and struggle over ideas, even when this dissent boils over and may be embroiled by the acts of “ninja-like” infiltrators, is inherent to the Free Speech Movement. Police action on Sproul, especially police action in response to student protest, is nothing new. The Free Speech Movement began when thousands of students blockaded a police squad car from arresting a Cal alum Jack Weinberg For 36 hours.

So if dissent, protest and civil disobedience unnerve those who claim to represent the Free Speech Movement of today, are they in fact the Free Speech Movement? Do they in fact share any connection with the Free Speech Movement at all? No. To put it even more bluntly, here’s a litmus test. Do you support Donald Trump, a candidate whose key ingredients include alternative facts, contempt for the free press and desire to deport a number of people so high even Stalin would find impressive? Yes? Well then you probably should re-evaluate your relationship to free speech.

Political groups of today who claim they are “the new Free Speech Movement” share nothing in common with those they seek to imitate. The Free Speech Movement represented a bulwark of and a jumping off point for the new left. Simply put, The Free Speech Movement wasn’t about being able to say whatever you want when you want to; rather, it was the organized left on the college campus. They were freedom riders, anti-war protesters, the substrate for what would become hippies; most were just concerned students and faculty.

You cannot claim to be the new Free Speech Movement, part of the Free Speech Movement or living in the legacy of the FSM if your ideology does not extend past simple and low provocation. Free speech as a concept, includes dark humor and incendiary remarks, when these remarks themselves underpin some larger substantial argument. Yet the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s had substance past loud and controversial exterior it presented. This substance represented a school of thought foundational to the new left, and at the antithesis of modern day FSM imposters. It’s about content of your speech, character and actions, not your branding. The cooption of the Free Speech Movement should be addressed head on. Where to draw the line on speech is a different argument, a different article and a different conversation. While we as a community have those discussions and arguments, let’s not get caught get our lines crossed. Milo, and those who invited him, are not the Free Speech Movement. They do not represent the Free Speech Movement and they cannot claim the same historical connection, political precedence or moral validity as that of the FSM. The Free Speech Movement isn’t dead because what was killed that night wasn’t the Free Speech Movement. It was an imposter.  It doesn’t matter how many hats, slogans, banners you have, you ain’t fooling anyone.

Featured Image Source: Steven Marcus, UC Berkeley Bancroft Library

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