On a campus brimming with social activism and a history of open mindedness, signs have emerged this month that the sanctity of free speech at the University of California at Berkeley may be endangered.
Civil liberty advocates and free speech proponents nationwide have watched with interest and caution the debates that have swirled in the past month surrounding the appropriateness of speech in the wake of September”s national disaster
In a pair of contentious cases that strike at the very nerve of the free exercise of speech, student editors at The Daily Californian the campus newspaper at Berkeley are taking defiant stances in the face of controversy and criticism. The debate jumped from the pages of The Daily Californian on Sept. 18 when the paper ran the syndicated column of Darrin Bell who had depicted the terrorist pilots of the airplanes downed in last month”s tragedy standing in flames symbolic of hell.
The cartoon immediately touched off a firestorm of controversy that found its way to the university”s student assembly, where a measure that threatened The Daily Californian with an outrageous $8,000-per-month increase in rent for the offices the independent newspaper rents from the assembly was proposed. Though the threat of financially penalizing the independent newspaper was later removed before the motion moved to a vote, the fact that the Associated Students of the University of California Berkeley, the school”s official student senate, would consider stifling the free speech of the campus daily should raise eyebrows on campuses nationwide.
Rarely does a student-run campus forum need to fear being silenced by its peers in student government who usually operate with similar motivations of student service. But by threatening to manipulate rental agreements in an obviously coercive attempt to extract an apology from the paper, the student senate considered a frightening form of censorship to say the least.
Now, I should say quiet clearly that I make no claims in defense of any cartoon that incenses, insults or in any way contributes to fear or anxiety on campuses especially in light of last month”s tragedy. The cartoon may have been run in poor taste and the editors” response to the complaints it generated may have been insensitive nevertheless, to see an elected body of campus leaders threaten to silence a newspaper in such a way should make us all stop and take note of the potential abuse of power. In the end, ASUC passed a rather symbolic resolution that still called for a dramatic show of apology on the part of the newspaper. The student senate voted with an 11-7 vote to demand a front-page apology from the newspaper and urged its staff to seek sensitivity training.
The paper”s editor in chief has said that the controversy has done nothing to change the editors” decision to refuse an apology for the cartoon.
But things refused to quiet down for The Daily Cal as last week free speech opponents stole hundreds of newspapers after bandit censors took issue with an advertisement placed by the Ayn Rand Institute. Five years ago as Californians weighed in on Proposition 209, The Daily Californian saw some 22,000 papers stolen in response to an editorial. And even last year after conservative media-monger David Horowitz placed an ad in the paper, The Daily Californian found itself in the middle of a wild debate and another case of stolen newspapers. The rogue criminals last Wednesday declared that they “will not allow business as usual to continue.”
Sadly, even in a time of heightened awareness of freedoms, the type of censorship that is becoming commonplace in Berkeley is beginning to look like business as usual.
Geoffrey Gagnon can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.