On the campus of the University of California at Berkeley is a monument to student free speech. It commemorates the Free Speech Movement that began at Berkeley in the 1960s. It should be moved.
On February 1 on that campus, a mob pepper-sprayed a woman, injured six people, started fires, and destroyed buildings and businesses on Berkeley’s campus, all to prevent a speaker* from speaking at the birthplace of the free speech movement. Sadly, while they may be embarrassed about how it happened, “[m]ost UC Berkeley students who spoke with CNN said they were relieved that [the speaker] wasn’t able to speak.”
In the wake of these events, the school’s monument to free speech doesn’t belong there anymore. It would be more fitting on a campus that truly respects free speech. But is there such a place?
Berkeley Is Far From Alone
Sadly, on few campuses can the First Amendment expect a reliable defense from university administrators, or even fellow students. Just down the road and just a few months ago, California State University at Los Angeles faculty, administrators, and students implemented a coordinated plan to prevent Ben Shapiro from speaking on their campus.
They tried to impose thousands of dollars in security fees because Shapiro’s event on diversity was deemed too “controversial,” then tried cancelling the event altogether, before faculty members incited and joined students in linking arms to bar entrance to the event, with the university president ordering campus police not to interfere with their unlawful behavior.
Alliance Defending Freedom’s Center for Academic Freedom has filed six federal lawsuits in the last several weeks challenging university policies and actions violating the First Amendment rights of students. Kellogg Community College in Michigan arrested students handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution while talking with other students about a school club on a sidewalk. A Georgia (yes, you read that correctly) college prohibited a student from peacefully sharing his Christian faith on campus. Queens College in New York City refused to approve the existence of a pro-life student group on its campus.
The examples could go on for pages. These are everyday occurrences on university campuses across the country. And they are blatantly unconstitutional.
University administrators violate the Constitution every day, failing or refusing to acknowledge that it actually applies to them even as our tax dollars pay their salaries. The vast majority of universities have unconstitutional written policies. The recent events at Berkeley demonstrate that, as bad as the written policies are, real life on a college campus can be much worse.
This Won’t Stop at Berkeley, Either
Just as the problem isn’t confined to Berkeley, the impact won’t be either. What happens on campus doesn’t stay on campus. Two-thirds of us go to college. It’s a common experience. And this is where we should be learning American constitutional culture: how the Constitution really works and why it’s valuable.
People learn from experience. It is vain to hope that graduating seniors will have learned more about the First Amendment from their ninth-grade civics class than from four years of observing how government employees actually behave on their campuses.
Today’s students are tomorrow’s legislators, judges, teachers, human rights commissioners, bureaucrats, and voters. They are being taught by example that the First Amendment is just a starting point, a mere suggestion to inform a government employee’s actions, not the supreme law of the land. They are learning that their rights come from the vice president of student affairs. This won’t end well.
This is how we end up with a culture believing that the First Amendment ends where someone else’s feelings begin, especially if they express those feelings loudly. This is how we end up with a culture believing that religious freedom is limited to the confines of a place of worship for one hour on a weekend. This is how we end up with a culture believing that government is the author of our rights, not their steward.
It is easy to mock UC Berkeley. And it has earned it. But we shouldn’t pretend that the same illiberal forces undermining the First Amendment are not at work on campuses in Georgia, Michigan, Colorado, North Carolina, and all over the country.
We need to do more than tweak university policies. We have to change campus culture, or the attitude toward freedom we saw at Berkeley and see every day at America’s colleges will become our new cultural norm.
*This article does not provide the name of the speaker, because it doesn’t matter.