On Higher Education, Free Speech and Protest

Thursday morning, I woke up to a tweet from the President of the United States threatening my campus, my home—UC Berkeley. In 136 characters, President Trump exploited a false narrative of protests on Berkeley’s campus to make the case for punishing higher education institutions where there is dissenting opinions. Students and higher education advocates across the country need to take note.

What happened the night before on Berkeley’s campus was absolutely saddening on all fronts. Milo Yiannopolous, an extreme right speaker with a penchant for hate speech and a habit of self-righteous megalomania, was given a platform to stoke prejudice and stroke his ego. According to reports that Yiannopolous has denied, the Breitbart editor was planning to use his speech to announce an attack on undocumented students, as he had previously done to a trans student at UW-Milwaukee.

But the tragedy of the night was that without saying a word, Yiannopolous got to feel vindicated in the moral hazard of his prejudice because of the violence that took place outside the venue. Yet, counter to the narrative Yiannopolous and President Trump have tried to portray on social media, it was orchestrated by people with little affiliation to our campus community. The safety of students, staff, faculty, visitors, and community members on our campus was put at risk. These agitators not only blocked Yiannopolous from speaking, but they also undermined the free speech of the thousands of students and other community members who had gathered to protest the event and exercise their right to participate in nonviolent civil disobedience, too.

But the tragedy of the night was that without saying a word, Yiannopolous got to feel vindicated in the moral hazard of his prejudice because of the violence that took place outside the venue.

Sadly, those instigators will be able to revel in how they stirred up chaos for their cause without having to face the consequences of Wednesday night that are disproportionately going to be felt on campus by people of color, queer and trans students. Notably, UC Berkeley is consistently ranked as one of the nation’s best public universities with a diverse student population in which over 33 percent of the undergraduate student body receives federal Pell Grant aid. I am scared for the retaliation and retribution UC Berkeley and other institutions of higher education might face for that night. Because, when the President of the United States suggests that UC Berkeley should have its federal funding revoked, that is a threat that must be taken seriously. President Trump’s tweet should not be regarded as an isolated zinger at UC Berkeley but rather understood as his first assault on the integrity of higher education everywhere.

The president’s tweet is a threat intended to question and suppress the critical thought and free-thinking activism that has defined Berkeley’s academic environment dating back to the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s. It is a fair and valid question to ask whether the free speech of conservatives is being deprived on college campuses like Berkeley, especially when intimidation tactics are used to silence them. However, is it not also an attack on liberal or leftist free speech when the President threatens to take hostage federal funding for a public educational institution if views expressed there run counter to his own? After all, the intent of the First Amendment is predicated on the belief that it is the state that ought not infringe on the free speech rights of individuals. Threatening the distribution of state funds to public universities where individuals may dissent seems like a crude way for the President to indirectly do just that.

Universities are a valuable public good that transcend the confines of their campus limits and benefit society as a whole. These institutions provide opportunities of learning, employment and creative thinking to students who might not otherwise have the privilege. Furthermore, higher education institutions are at the cutting edge of research and the forefront of environmental, medical, social, technological and scientific progress. It should not matter if it is UC Berkeley nor any other school; a threat to federal funding anywhere is an attack on higher education and societal progress everywhere.