Free Speech

The Free Speech Movement

Free speech movement beginning in Berkeley 1964 (Tom James was not there)

The change came

The Free Speech Movement succeeded. In the ensuing years, the U.C. Berkeley campus became a haven for free speech. A walk through Sproul Plaza in the 1970’s and 1980’s meant making your way past dozens of information tables representing a range of ideas and causes that could not have been more diverse. Not only did the Democratic and Republican parties have their tables, but members of the Peace and Freedom party set up a table there, too. Even the Socialist Workers Party had a table. Army representatives set up a recruiting table next to a nuclear disarmament table. The UFW and people opposing South African apartheid were there, as were Moonies, Hare Krishnas, the lovably vitriolic, Bible-banging preacher Holy Hubert, and the atheistic “I hate you” guy (aka “Hate Man.”)

Mario Savio (This is NOT the author, Minnesota attorney Thomas James)
Photo credit: AP; NPR.org

The change went

In 2017, conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos came to the U.C. Berkeley campus to give a talk. This time, students turned out en masse in Sproul Plaza not to demand respect for freedom of speech but to demand the university take action to deny it. People calling themselves “anti-fascists” showed up to start fires and physically assault anyone they suspected might be a conservative fellow-traveler or sympathizer.

Circle and slash over speech balloon

“Free speech for me but not for thee”

Having relatives and ancestors who were imprisoned and worse for holding minority religious views, it pains me to hear people casually dismissing the rights to freedom of thought and expression. Seeing mobs of university faculty members and students — all presumably very well educated — demanding totalitarian restrictions on fellow citizens stirs up feelings so deep within me that I cannot even begin to put them into words. I cling to the belief, however, that most people are still at least potentially rational beings. Accordingly, I have to believe that people who speak against the right to speak don’t really mean it; I have to believe they simply haven’t learned to communicate their meaning clearly.

The right to dissent

To respect other people’s freedoms of thought and expression is not the equivalent of being required to agree with them.

Conclusion

I had planned to write a lot more here. I was going to cover the difference between a restriction imposed by a state actor (such as a University official) and a restriction imposed by the owner of a privately-owned venue. I was going to talk at length about a so-called “right to be comfortable.” I was going to talk about the difference between the right to be free from a prior restraint on speech and the right to be free from responsibility for the consequences of knowingly using false statements to destroy an individual’s reputation. I was going to explain the difference between yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater and publishing an article expressing the view that many theaters are fire hazards. And so on. I don’t want to turn a blog post into a book, though.

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Thomas B James

Thomas B James

Thomas James is a Cokato Minnesota attorney less formally known as Tom James, focused on copyright, trademark and e-commerce law. Also a CLE instructor.