FSMers Respond to "Civility" Appeal

Yesterday I posted a statement by the Council of University of California Faculty Associations (CUCFA), issued in response to a September 5 message to the UC Berkeley campus from Chancellor Nicholas Dirks that called “civility” and free speech “two sides of a single coin.”  Also yesterday Dirks sent an email message to faculty, staff and students that sought to clarify his previous words. He now stated: “I did not mean to suggest any constraint on freedom of speech, nor did I mean to compromise in any way our commitment to academic freedom.” (The full text of Dirks’s new email may be found at the conclusion of this posting.)  But Dirks’s clarification did not come before a group of veterans of the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM), who with the university’s support and cooperation will be celebrating that landmark event’s 50th anniversary later this month, weighed in as well.  The following is the text of the extraordinary letter that they sent to Chancellor Dirks:

Dear Chancellor Dirks,

The Free Speech Movement Archives and the Organizing Committee for the FSM 50th Anniversary would like to thank you for generously supporting our efforts to commemorate the Free Speech Movement, and to keep the memory of those events alive. We look forward to seeing you at our reunion. In the spirit of civil discourse, we would like to bring to your attention some history regarding the question of what the Free Speech Movement was about, what we won, and what it means for the campus today. In your letter to the campus community of Friday, September 5 you said, “… the boundaries between protected speech and unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between debate and demagoguery… have never been fully settled.” In fact, these questions were fully settled. On December 8, 1964, the Berkeley Academic Senate adopted a resolution stating that: “the content of speech or advocacy shall not be restricted by the University.” This resolution was then reinforced by the Regent’s resolution of December 14 which stated: “Henceforth University regulations will not go beyond the purview of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.” In celebrating the half century that the UC Berkeley campus has been “a symbol and embodiment” of the idea of free speech, you are proudly and properly referring to the outcome produced by the Free Speech Movement in the fall of 1964. Your statement seems to miss the central point. The struggle of the FSM was all about the right to political advocacy on campus. The UC Administration of that time insisted it would not permit speech on campus advocating student participation in off-campus demonstrations that might lead to arrests. The African-American civil rights movement was then at its height and students rejected these restrictions. This attempt to restrict our rights produced the Free Speech Movement.

It is precisely the right to speech on subjects that are divisive, controversial, and capable of arousing strong feelings that we fought for in 1964. . . From the roof of the police car blockaded in Sproul Plaza, we heard a song written by a UC graduate (BA, MA, PhD) Malvina Reynolds that summed up our feelings toward the UC Administration and others who were then trying to reign-in the civil rights movement. The song was titled, “It Isn’t Nice”.

“It isn’t nice to block the doorways, it isn’t nice to go to jail!/

There are nicer ways to do it, but the nice ways always fail./

It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice, you told us once you told us twice/

But if that’s freedom’s price, we don’t mind.”

We note that the charge of “uncivility” was used by Chancellor Phyllis Wise of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, to justify the discharge of Professor Steve Salaita. For this reason, many now read the call for civility in your letter as a potential threat.

We understand you have issued no regulation nor taken any steps to restrict political advocacy or “uncivil” speech on the Berkeley Campus. Nonetheless, we are concerned that your call for “civility” may have a chilling effect on the exercise of free speech by Berkeley faculty and students. We therefore encourage you to clarify the intent of your letter while continuing to uphold and affirm the proud traditions established on the Berkeley Campus fifty years ago.

Sincerely yours,

The Board of Directors of the Free Speech Movement Archives,and the 50th Anniversary Organizing Committee:

Lee Felsenstein, Gar Smith, Anita Medal, Bettina Aptheker, Susan Druding, Barbara Garson, Jackie Goldberg, Lynne Hollander Savio, Jack Radey, Barbara Stack, Steve Lustig, Karen McLellan, Mike Smith, Dana MacDermott, Jack Weinberg, Margy Wilkinson

And here is the full text of the email clarification that Dirks issued yesterday:

Every fall for the last many years, we have issued statements concerning the virtue of civility on campus. This principle is one of several that Berkeley staff, students, faculty, and alumni themselves developed and today regard as “fundamental to our mission of teaching, research and public service.”  To quote further from our “principles of community”: “We are committed to ensuring freedom of expression and dialogue that elicits the full spectrum of views held by our varied communities. We respect the differences as well as the commonalities that bring us together and call for civility and respect in our personal interactions.” For a full list of these stated principles, please see http://berkeley.edu/about/principles.shtml.

In this year’s email, I extended this notion of civility to another crucial element of Berkeley’s identity, namely our unflinching commitment to free speech — a principle this campus will spend much of this fall celebrating in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement.

My message was intended to re-affirm values that have for years been understood as foundational to this campus community. As I also noted in my message, these values can exist in tension with each other, and there are continuing and serious debates about fundamental issues related to them. In invoking my hope that commitments to civility and to freedom of speech can complement each other, I did not mean to suggest any constraint on freedom of speech, nor did I mean to compromise in any way our commitment to academic freedom, as defined both by this campus and the American Association of University Professors. (For the AAUP’s Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, please see http://www.aaup.org/issues/academic-freedom.)

I did, however, express my conviction that in the ongoing debates on campus about these and other issues we might collectively see the value of real engagement on divisive issues across different perspectives and opinions. By “real engagement” I mean openness to, and respect for, the different viewpoints that make up our campus community. I remain hopeful that our debates will be both productive and robust not only to further mutual understanding but also for the sake of our overriding intellectual mission.


Nicholas B. Dirks

3 thoughts on “FSMers Respond to "Civility" Appeal

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