Berkeley profs and students try to redefine hate speech and renew calls for class boycotts during Free Speech Week; science faculty stays quiet

UPDATE: While Free Speech Week is an organizational mess, it’s not clear whether it’s been canceled. Milo appears to be saying different things: NPR says it’s off, while HuffPo reports Milo saying it’s still on. Regardless, my arguments about free speech still apply. One thing’s for sure: speeches by these people will continue to be scheduled on campuses, and people will still argue that the First Amendment needs a rewrite.


Free Speech Week, a collection of talks by right-wingers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, begins tomorrow at the University of California at Berkeley. It’s scheduled to last four days, though it looks as if it may be a bust (several of the “scheduled” speakers didn’t even agree to talk).

I wrote about this event last week, and mentioned a faculty/student protest letter calling for the cancellation of classes, the closing of campus, and a policy to not penalize students who didn’t show up at class during those four days (three academic days, in fact). The letter argued that the “free speech” was violence, would incite violence as well as hurt feelings and offense among certain students, and that students should be protected from both hurt bodies and hurt feelings. (I agree about the former but not the latter.) You’ll already know what I think of that argument. If people’s feeling would be hurt by hearing the speakers, they can simply avoid them. As for the violence, well, it’s Berkeley’s responsibility to prevent it, and remember that the violence in the last Berkeley riot was committed predominantly by the Left (Antifa and its minions), many of whom weren’t Berkeley students. If the Left fears violence, tell them to reign in those who are on the Left!

At the time, that letter was signed by 132 faculty and graduate students, heavily weighted with humanities scholars compared to those in the sciences. As I wrote:

What’s most interesting are those departmental affiliations. Nearly every signer is from the humanities: gender studies, film studies, history of art, rhetoric, film and media, ethnic studies, English, African American studies, theater and dance performance, comparative literature, and so on. The only people even close to being scientists are one faculty member and one graduate student in anthropology, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, and someone of unspecified rank from the Department of Public Health and Medical Anthropology.  That’s a total of four people not in the humanities, or 3%.

Why do you suppose that is? Where are the biologists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians, and so on? Indeed, there’s not even anyone there from philosophy!

Readers had their own theories about this disparity among academic areas, including a more politically active stance among humanities scholars, the fact that scientists were busy in their labs, and so on. I don’t really know the answer, but Free Speech Week is still on the books, the “boycott letter” is still there (see the letter and signatories here), and the number of signatories has increased . I’ve counted them all and looked at their fields, including only faculty and grad students and leaving out alumnae and undergrads.

Among the 211 faculty and grad-student signers, 36, or 17%, are in fields related to science (I’m counting math, anthropology, environmental science, policy & management as “science”). But if you look only at the faculty signers, there are but three: two in mathematics and one in the tangential field of “environmental science policy and management.” That’s out of 69 faculty, including visiting faculty, adjuncts, and lecturers, so the proportion of science-related people signing the letter is about 4%. Since there are surely more than 4% of all faculty in science-related fields, we again see science underrepresented. The higher proportion of science grad students than science faculty is, I suppose, explained by their youth and indoctrination in Regressive Leftism, something that they don’t have the maturity to think about.

Here are a few bits from the letter (my emphasis):

. . . as faculty committed to the safety of our students and our campus, we are calling for a complete boycott of all classes and campus activities while these Alt-Right events are taking place at the very center of UC Berkeley’s campus. As faculty we cannot ask students and staff to choose between risking their physical and mental safety in order to attend class or come to work in an environment of harassment, intimidation, violence, and militarized policing. The reality is that particularly vulnerable populations (DACA students, non-white, gender queer, Muslims, disabled, feminists, and others) have already been harmed, and are reporting increased levels of fear and anxiety about the upcoming events, the increased police presence on our campus, and how all this will impact their lives and their studies.

It is not just physical violence that our campus faces from this media circus. Many of these provocateurs’ most committed audiences are online, and the Breitbart media machine uses that audience to harass, cyberbully, and threaten anyone who speaks out against them. Students and faculty on our campus have already had their lives threatened for speaking out against Milo and his followers. Online threats are real threats, and if we allow this intolerant and bullying version of free speech to take over our campus, then it can only but come at the expense of the free speech rights of the Berkeley community as a whole. In fact, campus safety concerns have already forced the Anthropology Department to cancel a public talk during “free speech week.” This makes clear that the administration understands the imminent threat to campus safety while also revealing that the loud demands of the Alt-Right has the effect of silencing members of our campus community.

We recognize that as a public institution, we are legally bound by the Constitution to allow all viewpoints on campus. However, there are forms of speech that are not protected under the First Amendment. These include speech that presents imminent physical danger and speech that disrupts the university’s mission to educate. Milo, Coulter and Bannon do not come to educate; they and their followers come to humiliate and incite. If the administration insists upon allowing the Alt-Right to occupy the center of our campus for four days to harass, threaten and intimidate us, as they did during Milo’s visit in February, then faculty cannot teach, staff cannot work and students cannot learn.

Note that “mental safety” is analogized to physical safety, which means being offended is like being punched. I reject that argument, as the students don’t have to listen to any of these speakers.  Further, no members of the campus community have been “silenced”: this letter and the publicity it got (see below) is proof of that.  As for threats, I suspect the Left is making them at least as often as the right, and in the past has been prone to actions like pulling fire alarms or phoning in bomb threats to cancel right-wing talks. I’m guessing that will happen this week.

Finally, note the “We love free speech but. . . ” sentence, with the invidious claim that the speakers are arriving only to humiliate and incite. Well, there’s no doubt that people like Milo are appearing in Berkeley as a way to “test the waters” for their message, but if they incite the Left, rousing the thugs of Antifa, then that is the fault of the Left. I don’t think anyone, and that includes Bannon and Milo, is urging people to commit violence, and therefore they’re not abrogating the Constitituion. I’m sure people like Milo wouldn’t disapprove of Left-inspired violence, as it gives him publicity, but the best way for the Left to deal with these speakers is to either mount peaceful protests (including counterspeech) or ignore them completely. Every time the Left starts a riot, it looks worse, and further entrenches the Trumpies.

In the meantime, the supposedly “silenced” members of the Berkeley community got a big voice in yesterday’s New York Times. Click on the article below to see it:

Curiosly, the article doesn’t mention the big underrepresentation of science faculty among the signers, which is an interesting phenomenon worth noting and exploring. Equally curious is that they get one of the three science-faculty signers, mathematician Katrin Wehrheim, as their prime commenter and use another science professor, an anthropologist who didn’t sign the letter, as another anti-event commenter:

But symplectic geometry will not be meeting for its scheduled session on Tuesday because the professor, Katrin Wehrheim, is one of dozens of faculty members who have canceled classes ahead of a series of scheduled appearances by right-wing speakers next week in the latest round of Berkeley’s free speech wars.

“It’s just not safe to hold class,” Professor Wehrheim said. “This is not about free speech. These people are coming here to pick a fight.”

. . . In stark contrast to this position [“students need to hear stuff they don’t agree with”] is Professor Wehrheim, the symplectic geometry expert, whose German heritage informs a stance that certain speech should be banned from campus.

“Americans are missing the profound analogies between present day U.S. developments and German history,” Professor Wehrheim said.

In Germany today, Professor Wehrheim said, “you will get jailed for certain speech — and I think that is absolutely the right thing.”

No, it’s not the right thing. The courts would never enact the kind of anti-“hate speech” laws that obtain in Germany, and the U.S. didn’t suffer because of the First Amendment. Trump, in fact—idiotic authoritarian that he is—wasn’t elected because the First Amendment allowed Nazis and white supremacists to speak out in his favor. That idea is ludicrous. And if someone like Wehrheim wants authorities to censor speech, what kind of speech, given our president government, do you think will be censored? Hint: it may be hers.

Other faculty have called for suppression of “alt-right” speech:

“What America is not understanding about what’s happening at Berkeley is this is a community and a campus that is under a comprehensive, well-funded full assault by the alt-right,” said Michael Mark Cohen, an associate professor of American studies and African-American studies who is helping lead the boycott. “These people will not leave us alone. This has to stop unless the rest of the country is willing to let Berkeley become a battlefield.”

Mr. Cohen says he would prefer for the university to bar inflammatory right-wing speakers from coming to campus and spend the money now going to security on legal fees defending the ban.

Sorry, but Berkeley will survive. The assault I’m worried about is not by these marginal and sometimes looney right-wing speakers, but by the authoritarian Left that wants to determine what students are allowed to say and, more important, to hear. We will survive the era of Trump, but we won’t survive a rewriting of the First Amendment.  Remember that one day Trump will be gone, and that courts will continue to enforce the existing interpretation of freedom of speech. (Even right-wing courts adhere to existing policy.) People like Cohen, the Melissa Click of Berkeley, simply fail to foresee the consequences of banning “inflammatory” speakers.

I’ll close by quoting two more professors who favor banning offensive speech. (They get a lot more play that those in favor of free speech, showing that nobody has been silenced):

According to a survey conducted in August and made public on the Brookings Institution website, a plurality of college students polled, 44 percent, believed that hate speech was not protected by the First Amendment.

“Today’s students tend to believe in a narrower interpretation of the First Amendment than is actually true,” said the author of the study, John Villasenor, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “There is this idea that what is permissible to say should be judged in large part on its impact on a listener.”

One proponent of that idea is Nancy Scheper-Hughes, an anthropology professor at Berkeley who this semester is teaching a course on the relationship between free speech and hate speech. [JAC: Oy!]

“Words can be like rape — they can destroy you,” Professor Scheper-Hughes said in an interview.

Professor Scheper-Hughes said that sexual harassment was an example of how certain categories of speech are illegal and that there should be further changes to the country’s free speech laws.

“The Supreme Court is behind the times,” she said. “The First Amendment deserves to be re-looked at.”

And if the present Supreme court were to re-interpret the Constitution, do you think it would change the First Amendment in a way Scheper-Hughes would like? Don’t count on it.

Scheper-Hughes didn’t sign the letter, but her argument that words are like rape is a gross exaggeration designed to equate language and genuine violence. I’m sorry, but if you can be “destroyed” by legally expressed words (I’m not talking about illegal harassment here), you need to work on bucking yourself up, or seek counseling to be able to live in a world where offensive speech is ubiquitous.

One more anti-First-Amendmenter:

Leigh Raiford, a professor of African-American Studies at Berkeley, said those who advocate free speech “absolutism” ignored the fact that minorities on campus feel especially vulnerable when adherents of the far right come to the university.

“At what point is the principle of free speech more important than community safety and the values of our city?” she said.

Well, Dr. Raiford, the courts have already decided that, ruling that speech can’t be banned unless it incites imminent violence. And that is the boundary at which free speech remains more important than other values.

It’s ironic that that question could easily have been asked by a segregationist in the Sixties South arguing against allowing people to give talks promoting civil rights. After all, integration was thought to endanger the “safety and values” of Southerners in power. Isn’t it fortunate that bigots back then weren’t allowed to deem calls for integration “hate speech”?

I am far more afraid of those who would impose censorship on speech than on flash-in-the pan careerists like Milo Yiannopoulos or the marginalized American Nazi Party. The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, but the curve will be straighter if we keep trying to shut people up.

h/t: cesar


  1. jwthomas
    Posted September 23, 2017 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Just saw an article in an online newspaper that Coulter is not coming to the party.

    • Posted September 23, 2017 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      I just saw an NPR report that it had been canceled but other venues say different. Stay tuned.

  2. Randy schenck
    Posted September 23, 2017 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I’m probably wrong on this but thought the whole thing had been cancelled?

    Professor Scheper-Hughes could use some training in sexual harassment based on her claims of illegal speech here. That is simply someone who does not understand the issue in the least. Sexual harassment is something that is done from one person to another in the work place or school to gain sexual favor or pressure sexual contact. Most often it is done by a supervisor or manager that holds some leverage over the other person but not always. As an example, if a teacher filed sexual harassment against a student it is very unlikely to stick. Simply put, sexual harassment and 1st amendment rights are not the same thing at all.

    If the progressives at Berkeley want support for their lack of understanding on free speech, they need look no further than Donald Trump. He also has no clue.

  3. biz
    Posted September 23, 2017 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    ‘Words are like rape.’

    Do these professors and lecturers realize they are turning a generation of college students into conservatives?

    • Posted September 23, 2017 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      Words can also heal, promote reason, tolerance, enlighten… I can’t say the same for the violent act of rape.

    • Posted September 25, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      I wouldn’t go that far, but the statement is horrible, not the least of which to people who have actually been victims of sexual assault.

      (Unfortunately, there’s been over 30 years of this stuff, courtesy of Sandra Harding.)

  4. Posted September 23, 2017 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    How things have changed. Attending talks by controversial speakers was a highlight of my college years.

  5. barube
    Posted September 23, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    As Dr. Jordan Peterson says, the humanities need to be starved in order to purge them of all things post-modernist!

    • Harrison
      Posted September 23, 2017 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      This sounds too akin to typical Republican “drown the government in the bathtub” rhetoric.

      The humanities in toto are not entirely a POMO organ. Some rare fields even still have a strong conservative presence, such as military history.

  6. Posted September 23, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Well, Dr. Raiford, the courts have already decided that, ruling that speech can’t be banned unless it incites imminent violence

    That makes it possible to ban ANY speech. All its opponents have to do is promise to incite violence if the speech is permitted

    • Randy schenck
      Posted September 23, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Actually that is not how it works. And if you want to promise to incite violence they might just come and get you. If your promise simply causes the event to not take place, well that is intimidation.

      • Posted September 23, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        I realize that’s not supposed to be how it works but it seems to me that there have been cases where they ban a talk by a right wing speaker because there were general hints on social media that some on the left were planning nondescript ‘violence’

  7. Posted September 23, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Remember ‘free speech has consequences’

    But real violence against ‘Nazis’ and ‘fascists’ has no consequences.

  8. jay
    Posted September 23, 2017 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I read recently that Yale and other universities have become infested with cuckoo’s eggs. That frightening image seems dangerously true.

  9. nicky
    Posted September 23, 2017 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Maybe I’m biased, but I attach less importance to the opinion of an ‘xxx-studies’ professor than to the one of the cashier in my grocery store. The latter would generally be talking about ‘real things’.
    ‘xxx(fill in as encountered)-studies’ is a red flag, no, a red flashing light with sirens blasting.

  10. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted September 23, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    By all means peaceful demonstrations against the speaker line-up would be a great idea. Rushing in to “punch nazis” is not. Interesting that those most eager to enforce political correctness instead of calmly disputing the lies of the alt-right are from the humanities which seem to have been overtaken by an authoritarian zeal to define any disagreement with their dogmas as support for nazis. The disciplines which reward careful thinking are more on the side of rational debate. There has always been a bit of mutual contempt between the rigorous sciences and the humanities in Universities, but only in recent years have the dogma-addled humanities tried to suppress heretical ideas by violent means.

  11. Doug
    Posted September 23, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I have a prediction: since some people cannot see the difference between allowing [insert group of your choice here] to speak and supporting them, the next target will be the concept of a fair trial. If saying “Everyone is entitled to free speech, including racists” equals supporting racists, then saying “Everyone is entitled to a fair trial, including murderers” will be seen as supporting murderers.

    We’re already seeing people saying “If you say Bill Cosby is innocent until proven guilty, then you’re calling his accusers liars and you’re siding with a rapist.” I haven’t heard anyone advocate bringing back lynching yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Not that I expect lynching to be legalized, but if a lynching does happen, there will be people defending it. “Everyone knows he was guilty!”

    • jay
      Posted September 24, 2017 at 7:33 am | Permalink

      Your point is good. Frankly I am frightened of where the country is headed. The speed at which things are changing is unimaginable.

      For 150 years, the Confederate flag and a few memorials have existed in this country–after all they were history, and need to be understood. After a single high profile killing (out of thousands that occur annually) the flag is essentially banned, statues are being destroyed and now even Civil war re-enactors have had to keep a very low profile, several annual events have been cancelled. This could not have been imagined 3 years ago.

      Last year Berkeley celebrated ‘free speech’ (albeit somewhat dishonestly), this year ‘free speech’ a ‘code word’ for Nazi/KKK violence. If we don’t win this battle quickly, the concept of free speech will go the way of the confederate flag. I suspect that Berkeley has had it’s last free speech celebration.

      After Twitter and Google implemented more extreme censorship, an alternative ‘twitter’ called Gab was created, which operated on the principle of not censoring anything protected by the 1st amendment. Apple and Google removed it from their stores (fortunately Android allows side loading) and now their domain provider is pulling their domain registration.

      A few years ago the concern was protecting the rights of gay people, now we are having reported instances of ‘trans gender education ‘ in kindergarten, where young, developing children are told to ‘just pick your gender’. Two years ago this would have been laughed off as conservative fear mongering.

      Unfortunately, the Democratic party is deeply into much of these problems, having abandoned their historic base, they are now beholden to the screwball left. I’m glad Hillary lost, under the Dems, the descent into madness would be much quicker.

  12. Doug
    Posted September 23, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I have a prediction: since some people cannot see the difference between allowing [insert group of your choice here] to speak and supporting them, the next target will be the concept of a fair trial. If saying “Everyone is entitled to free speech, including racists” equals supporting racists, then saying “Everyone is entitled to a fair trial, including murderers” will be seen as supporting murderers.

    We’re already seeing people saying “If you say Bill Cosby is innocent until proven guilty, then you’re calling his accusers liars and you’re siding with a rapist.” I haven’t heard anyone advocate bringing back lynching yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Not that I expect lynching to be legalized, but if a lynching does happen, there will be people defending it. “Everyone knows he was guilty!”

  13. DrBrydon
    Posted September 23, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    “Words can be like rape — they can destroy you,” Professor Scheper-Hughes said in an interview.

    If that were true, the ctrl-left would certainly have vanquished their opponents by now. These people never seem to consider why it is that speech by their opponents is so powerful, and, yet, their speech seems to have no effect whatsoever.

    As for the disparity between the number of supporters of censorship in the Humanities vs. the Sciences, clearly that is because the Humanities and the Social Sciences have completely surrendered to race theory, identity politics, and intersectionality. It’s no wonder people can’t see value in the Humanities any more.

  14. Rob
    Posted September 23, 2017 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    If classes are canceled, do students get a refund?

    Are students expected to be responsible for course material that would have been covered in the canceled classes?

    Seems this university has its priorities mixed up. Classes first, other stuff, such as protests, speeches, etc., second. (Yes, I know universities are more than just classes.)

  15. Posted September 23, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    So the students think that Milo et al are coming to harass, intimidate, humiliate and silence them?

    OK then, a suggestion, why not just go about your daily business doing exactly what you would have done otherwise? That way you are refusing to intimidated, silenced or humiliated. And that means that Milo will have lost, right?

    Of course you could cower in humiliated silence, refusing to go anywhere near campus. In which case Milo will have won.

    • denise
      Posted September 23, 2017 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      That’s the whole idea behind calling people Nazis: if they’re the equivalent of Adolph Hitler then all forms of opposition are justified and to ignore them is to acquiesce to another Holocaust.

  16. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted September 23, 2017 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Well, Dr. Raiford, the courts have already decided that, ruling that speech can’t be banned unless it incites imminent violence. And that is the boundary at which free speech remains more important than other values.

    Yes, but that is the US choice of balance. Is not Raiford just asking what the balance should be, acknowledging that many nations do not choose US “absolutism”? (Though I suspect Raiford’s motivation for asking that is to disempower those who displease.)

    Which gets me to this:

    The courts would never enact the kind of anti-“hate speech” laws that obtain in Germany, and the U.S. didn’t suffer because of the First Amendment.

    We do not know that US has not suffered. It has after all slipped to being a compromised democracy last year. While that has been a few decades long process starting much later than the activation of the FA, we do not know what effect it has had on the process.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted September 23, 2017 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      I forgot to add:

      While many nations like Germany and Sweden have hate speech laws and remains full untarnished (well) democracies.

      • jay
        Posted September 24, 2017 at 7:57 am | Permalink

        “While many nations like Germany and Sweden have hate speech laws and remains full untarnished (well) democracies.”

        Censorship is alive and well in these locations. Newspapers are restricted in what they can publish, people can and do get arrested for criticizing Islam.

      • somer
        Posted September 24, 2017 at 9:10 am | Permalink

        I think jailing people for expressing views that do not explicitly call for violence is just wrong.

        The humanities are genuinely crucial in society but a large sector of them have become about disparaging western society; – self reflection has metastasised into toxic autoimmune disease.

        America is a sharply divided society – it has a large section in its left that have come to equate enlightenment values with colonialism and something to be destroyed.

        In America hate speech laws would be used to wholesale silence huge swathes of debate – and would act as a trigger for retaliatory shutting down of swathes of speech by the right.

        I think the humanities need to be more often expected to collaborate with empirical fields and be encouraged to provide evidence – not really mathematical as human affairs can’t be reduced to mathematics – but even balance of likelihood type evidence and an absolute requirement that what is alleged reflects science literacy and does not contradict key science.

  17. Ty Gardner
    Posted September 23, 2017 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    I’ll begin with the hopefully unnecessary statement that I support free speech.
    I’m writing though to suggest that environmental science may not be “tangential” to science. I am but a lowly Community College faculty member. I teach a variety of courses, including one in environmental science. Yes, the course involves discussion of policy, as environmental science sits at the junction of science, politics, and sociology. It is possible that the Berkeley faculty member is an expert in politics and policy rather than science. However, the course I teach, like many courses in environmental science, is also heavy in ecology, and evolution as it relates to topics from ecology to reserve design. I rely on both my BS degree in Wildlife Science and my graduate education in biology to teach the science that underpins the management of resources. Perhaps the faculty member in question has experience that is more than tangentially tied to science.
    I’m not suggesting that the person in question should be supporting a redesign of free speech in this nation, just the environmental science is a legitimate, if very broad, field that has to connect the biological and physical sciences to an understanding of culture and policy in order to develop those who may be able bring together people from different backgrounds and with different agendas so that we can develop agreements that simultaneously support local cultures and the preservation of our environment.

  18. Posted September 24, 2017 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Maybe we erred in requiring teachers to provide “a safe learning environment.” Or maybe we forgot to define “safe.”

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