By Serena Witherspoon
Spring semester 2017 at UC Berkeley followed the precedent of tension that was set after Trump’s inauguration in the Fall. The presence of the ‘Trump’ booth on campus irked many, triggered others, and validated some. The Berkeley College Republicans invited right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos in February to give a speech that was canceled due to mass protest. Later in April the same organization asked Ann Coulter, a staunch conservative, to speak on campus.
On the day of Ann Coulter’s intended speech police officers filled the campus. There was no prior information provided to me as to why Sproul, the South facing entrance to campus and generally most populated area, was covered in police - but the general sentiment was to get off of campus and the surrounding area. I was not allowed to walk my bike through certain areas because I was told my U-lock was considered a potential weapon.
I had a Living Room Conversation planned on this day to discuss “Free Speech on Campus.” I sat in Lower Sproul away from the immediate drama: sounds of helicopter humming, police intercoms, and the antagonistic voices of people advocating their respective beliefs.
During the conversation we ended up focusing mostly on the nuanced difference between free speech and hate speech-- a difference which none of us felt we could concretely define. From my perspective, inviting Coulter, who openly opposes gay marriage, abortion rights, and amnesty for immigrants, to a campus that is home to a large queer community and a large undocumented/immigrant community is intentionally welcoming hate into their home. The university accepted these students and it is the job of the university to make them feel safe while on campus.
A frequent retort is that freedom of speech is an essential right in America and cannot be infringed upon for being ‘offensive.’ I too believe in free speech and communication as an essential human right but I think ‘offensiveness’ is too often the term used for hateful and dehumanizing acts. This made me think of an an occurrence from earlier in the Fall where a group of Trump supporters came onto campus and began building a wall out of blocks, apparently to show their support for Trump’s proposal to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The undocumented students department protested this and ended up kicking down the wall. Supporters of the wall claimed that building the wall was an act of free speech however offensive it may be. The situation escalated when threats began to circulate about reporting the names of the protesting undocumented students to ICE. This is a prime example of how the notion of ‘free speech’ is manipulated by groups that hold more power in America. The playing field is clearly not equal if one group, like the undocumented students in this scenario, are not allowed to speak freely or protest out of fear of deportation or another direct threat to one’s own livelihood.
So my question is, how do we determine when something is hate speech? If inviting provocateurs to campus to speak against communities that call our campuses home is merely an act of free speech, where can we draw the line?
The consensus we found in the conversation whether or not we believed Coulter and Yiannopoulos were intending to perform their right to free speech or spewing hate speech was that the right to protest must be held in as high esteem as the right to free speech. Both sides were more comfortable with the idea of ‘offensive’ free speech only if those who were in protest were allowed to be present.
Serena Witherspoon studies Sociology at UC Berkeley. Her research explores the relationship between education and incarceration. She works with Living Room Conversations to broaden and deepen transpartisan communications.