On Robert Birgeneau and free speech

Reviewing the record of UC Berkeley’s former chancellor, and the current “free speech” debate

On Tuesday, Haverford College president Daniel Weiss announced that former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau had withdrawn from Haverford College’s commencement ceremony this weekend. Birgeneau is one of three high-profile figures to back out from graduation ceremonies at three different colleges this year.

The student activists responsible have come under a heavy amount of scrutiny over the last few days. Here are a few of their critics:

  • Olivia Nuzzi wrote for The Daily Beast on Tuesday about the “Oh-So-Fragile Class of 2014,” arguing that student activists have perhaps forgotten “that there might be some value in hearing what someone you don’t like or respect might have to say.”
  • In yesterday’s New York Times, Timothy Egan (author of one of the strangest ledes I can remember) took aim at campus “forces of intolerance” and “lefty thought police” responsible for the withdrawals.
  • Writing in Bloomberg View, columnist Stephen L. Carter attacked my “generation’s penchant for shutting down speakers with whom [they] disagree.”
  • There was also (of course) a Vox explainer on the topic of “students forcing out commencement speakers” and the anti-liberal left.

At best, these authors are misguided advocates for free speech, positing that student activism should be focused on responding to opinions offered, not shutting them down preemptively. There’s a good case to be made that these writers misunderstand the concept of “free speech,” but I’m not going to make it.

Instead, I’d like to tell a story.

In the autumn of 2011, Berkeley was going crazy. Earlier in the semester I had taken a leave from the staff of The Daily Californian, Berkeley’s student newspaper, and had subsequently gotten wrapped up in the emerging Occupy Cal protests. A kind of rebellious energy had pervaded the community, awakening the activist spirit long associated with the campus.

The day after a November 9 “Day of Action” on which police arrested seven Occupy activists, the atmosphere was tense. A video of police armed with batons and riot gear beating students had gone viral. This prompted a now infamous press release from the administration, calling the actions of the student protesters (“linking arms and forming a human chain”) “not non-violent civil disobedience.”

The incident would later be rehashed on national news, The Colbert Report, and elsewhere. Former U.S. Poet Laureate and Berkeley professor Robert Hass wrote a moving op-ed for The New York Times. For more details on the whole saga, The Daily Californian has since put together a great post aggregating their coverage.

At the time of the November 9 protests, then-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau was traveling in Asia. He later claimed to be in “limited contact” with campus officials while the police were drawing their batons. The ACLU submitted a Freedom of Information Act request, and learned a couple months later that Birgeneau had in fact lied. Birgeneau “was told that campus police had used batons, and … he did not call for a more passive approach” in dealing with the protestors, the majority of whom were students.

While Birgeneau issued a brief apology for the police violence almost two weeks after November 9, he has seldom addressed the issue since. He has never apologized for lying about sanctioning police violence. When he announced his resignation in March 2012, many chalked it up to the criticism he endured as a result of the Occupy protests.

In November 2011, Chancellor Birgeneau was responsible for an actual suppression of free speech. Not the kind imagined in the pathetic jeremiads against “P.C. police” that are getting passed around today. Nearly fifty years after the Free Speech Movement planted itself on the steps of Sproul Hall, UCPD goons were doing their best to push students off the same spot — granted permission to do so by the highest levels of the administration. Permission granted by a person who would later conveniently forget.

Robert Birgeneau has had ample opportunity to own up to his role in shutting down the Occupy Cal protests. There was even a largely favorable documentary covering his administration by the great Frederick Wiseman. It got good reviews.

When Birgeneau withdrew from Haverford’s commencement ceremony, it was exactly that — he withdrew. Instead of facing his critics or responding to the pressure in his speech, he decided to back out rather than deal with the consequences of his actions. He wasn’t barred from the campus, nor was his invitation rescinded (unlike Rutgers alum Eric LeGrand). He chose not to speak, as did Christine Lagarde and Condoleezza Rice.

Were Lagarde, Birgeneau, or Rice true believers in free speech, as many of their defenders claim to be, then they shouldn’t have backed out of speaking. Instead, as people in power often do, they refused to face their critics — however few there may be — because that just isn’t what people in power do.

Instead, power responds to power. And while students were largely powerless to prevent police beatings three years ago, it’s a good thing that today they can bring pressure to bear on those responsible.

People in power should fear those who hold them accountable. On the increasingly upscale and administratively out-of-touch college campus of today, challenging that power is all the more important.