Free Speech

Reliving Campus Riots until They Respond Correctly: It’s Groundhog Day for State Legislators

On Wednesday night, protests at the University of California, Berkeley turned violent in response to a planned campus speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, an editor at Breitbart. The unfortunate result was that the event was canceled. The use of violence to silence free speech should always be condemned, regardless of the content of the speech.

Unfortunately, this sort of incident is all too common. An incident occurs, the public is outraged, legislators feel pressure to respond in some way, and then eventually life goes back to normal. A short time later the cycle repeats itself. This nightmare episode of “Groundhog Day” will continue until legislators figure out how to get to the root of the problem and stop campus riots before they start.

Legislators may be tempted to react to the specific incident introducing ill-advised legislation that attempts to punish the perceived culprits, but ultimately chills free speech. For example, it would not be a good idea to enact a law that required students and/or faculty who invited the speaker to bear the burden of additional security costs. Nor would it be a good idea to place this burden on the protestors who peacefully assembled outside. \The rioters naturally should pay for the damage they cause, but the law already covers that matter.

Legislators should resist this urge to react immediately with a bill, but they can swiftly take action.

Legislators should hold hearings and bring in university presidents, administrators and campus police to answer pointed questions. After all, who let these protests morph into riots in the first place? It should be noted that public institutions like  Berkeley are required to uphold the First Amendment. These public entities use taxpayer dollars to pay the salaries of school officials.

Questions the Public Deserves Answers To Include:

  1. Ask the university president what systems are in place on campus to ensure all students’ First Amendment rights are protected. This includes the right to listen as well as to speak.
  2. Ask campus police officers what procedures are in place to ensure all students are able to exercise their free speech rights. What, if any, orders have campus administrators given campus police regarding riots, heckling, and/or any other behavior by the student body that prohibits the free speech rights of other students?
  3. Ask campus police officers whether they feel they can enforce the law without interference from administrators.
  4. Ask the university president what, if any, educational seminars students are required to take ensure they understand their First Amendment rights and restrictions.
  5. Ask campus administrators what they plan to do in the future to ensure all students’ rights are protected.
  6. Ask university president what procedures are in place to hold administrators accountable for violating the rights of students.
  7. Ask campus police what happened. Why did they not act swiftly when the protests turned into riots?
  8. Ask university administrators what free speech rights they believe members of the campus community have. If they are wrong, then this is a good opportunity to set them straight. Ask them what steps they have taken to inform both students and campus police of these free speech rights.
  9. Ask general counsels if they have briefed and trained administrators regarding First Amendment rights. If not, ask them why.
  10. Ask administrators whether they have earmarked funds to train campus police to handle protests and other campus incidents in a manner that respects the First Amendment rights of the members of the campus community.

These are questions people in California and across the country are asking.  Taxpayers hand over their hard-earned money each year via appropriations to pay the salaries of university presidents, directors of student services, and campus police chiefs in every state. Public universities like UC Berkeley owe the people of the country an explanation. Policymakers are in the best position to get answers.

Until legislators hold university presidents, administrators and campus police accountable, they will continue to live the same day over and over again, just like Phil Conners in the 1993 film “Groundhog Day”. It is time to get it right and end the nightmare.


In Depth: Free Speech

Freedom of speech is paramount for the American system of government and American culture. Born from revolution, American society has been created, evolved and progressed based in part, on the First Amendment. More specifically, free speech allows individual’s to use their own voice to ensure “We the People” would control …

+ Free Speech In Depth