UC Berkeley officials need to stand up for free speech

Last year, University of California officials were pushing a dangerous idea that would have severely restricted discussion of a key historical movement of the modern era.

Think about that for a minute: A prestigious university system dedicated to the education of young people was proposing to clamp down on how this development was explained and understood by various parties.

In Orwellian fashion, this curtailment of free speech and intellectual inquiry was labeled “Final Report of the Regents Working Group on Principles Against Intolerance.” The key point of the report was to conflate criticism of Zionism – the movement to establish the state of Israel — with anti-Semitism and to subject such critics to disciplinary procedures under UC policies against intolerance.

The Los Angeles Times said in an editorial that the proposal “goes dangerously astray on anti-Semitism” and is tantamount to bigotry against faculty members and students who express disagreement with the state of Israel.

Thankfully, the Board of Regents had the good sense to reject this blanket censure of Zionism critics. In doing so, the regents reaffirmed the idea that UC was not established to be a safe haven from contentious issues that should and must be debated.

Now, UC Berkeley officials are undermining the principle of free speech by interfering with a planned talk by conservative commentator and provocateur Ann Coulter. The university had initially said it could not allow campus Republican groups to host her talk April 27 because of security concerns. After the predictable cries of outrage, officials proposed that she speak May 2, when classes would not be in session. Coulter plans to make the most of the controversy and show up on campus this Thursday.

I hope she does. UC officials need to be reminded free speech means nothing if it’s sacrificed on the altar of “security” or, more likely, political correctness. It’s time for easily offended students to realize that a good education is one that prepares them to confront prejudice, ignorance, intolerance and fake news. If they seek social justice, they must be willing to face their opponents and fight with the weapons of a democratic society. If they believe in inclusivity, they should open themselves to contrary viewpoints.

As I mentioned in a blog a year ago, I parted company with my left-wing pals in the late 1960s when they were eager to disrupt a UC Berkeley talk by William Shockley. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist was pushing a theory that blacks were mentally inferior to whites and that limiting black population growth through sterilization was essential for the well-being of the country.

The idea of silencing a controversial speaker on the campus that had given birth to the Free Speech Movement in 1964 struck me as both ironic and contemptible. I still feel that way.

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