UC Berkeley Flunks its Own Free-Speech Legacy—Again and Again

A child in front of a fire raising a flag - Dhillon Law Group

Harmeet Dhillon

The University of California Berkeley is championed by leftists as the birthplace of the free speech movement, a mantle it’s been all too happy to claim as its own—yet in recent months, that smug veneer has been stripped away to uncover a brutal partisan hypocrisy.

The school has come under fire for repeatedly resisting or cancelling on-campus appearances from conservative commentators, among them Ann Coulter, David Horowitz, and Ben Shapiro. These blatant acts of anti-conservative censorship have landed the school in a firestorm of controversy, with countless activists and UC Berkeley students rising up in protest. Their contention: Conservatives have First Amendment rights, too, and UC Berkeley only exposes its left-leaning double standard by trying to stifle them.

The school’s PR woes go back at least as far as February, when conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to host an on-campus event, only to have it cancelled by the school. Since then, right-leaning speaker after right-leaning speaker have found their campus events abruptly cancelled or never approved to begin with—all with the very flimsy pretense of “safety concerns,” conveniently absent whenever a liberal speaker shows up at the school. In the case of Ben Shapiro, he was allowed to speak with limitations not imposed on liberal speakers.

And make no mistake: Carol Christ—the school’s relatively new chancellor—knows full well what kind of damage has been done to the school’s reputation. She’s stepped up following the departure of Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, whose lackluster response to free speech controversies was roundly criticized. But for as much as she emphasizes this as the “year of free speech” at UC Berkeley, talk is cheap—and ultimately, her platitudes don’t cover for the contempt that UC Berkeley continues to show to speakers and students with right-leaning politics.

At the crux, that’s what the UC Berkeley controversy is about: it’s not just the hypocrisy or the suppression of ideas, but the fact that, by muffling conservative voices, the school makes its politically rightward students feel like they’re not welcome there; like they’re not allowed to make their own voices heard amongst the increasingly one-sided liberal din.

Regrettably for Christ and her student body, the chickens have come home to roost and the school’s intolerance has met with increasingly visceral reactions. Protesters spanning the political spectrum have marched through campus. Some of these protests have escalated into violence. Through its intolerance of conservative speech, UC Berkeley has turned itself into a war zone.

And that’s to say nothing of its mounting legal problems. The Berkeley administration has been sued by none other than its own campus Republicans, as well as the national Young America’s Foundation. The lawsuit alleges a violation of the First Amendment, Equal Protection, and Due Process right under the United States Constitution.

The school has filed for the motion to be dismissed. The hearing for this motion will take place on September 29, and only then will a judge issue a ruling.  But the Republicans at UC Berkeley have no intention of backing off their claim. They have enlisted the Dhillon Law Group to help them prove that their free speech rights have been violated, and that the administration at UC Berkeley is hostile to conservative speech.

But back to Christ: It remains to be seen how her tenure will address these issues, or whether she will really guide the school back to its all-encompassing free-speech views. She has made some troubling comments about future changes to speech policies at UC Berkeley that raise concern. While her comments thus far are a welcome first step, they’ve hardly addressed the root issues at play in Berkeley.

A more systematic fix is needed. One solution: Hire more conservative professors whose presence will help conservative students to feel truly welcome and free. This fix is, sadly, decades away from being feasible at UC Berkeley.

Christ claims that the way forward for the school is to take a more direct approach in calling out hate speech. According to one of her letters, “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.”

While that’s well and good, it doesn’t change the fact that many on the right simply don’t feel comfortable expressing their views at Berkeley — and thus far, the school itself has done little to change their minds. Right now, UC Berkeley remains a sad emblem of liberal intolerance — smugly asserting its open-mindedness, but stubbornly refusing any viewpoints that don’t fall into its political wheelhouse.

Harmeet Dhillon is a nationally recognized lawyer, trusted boardroom advisor, and passionate advocate for individual, corporate and institutional clients across numerous industries and walks of life. Her focus is in commercial litigation, employment law, First Amendment rights, and election law matters.
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