Dirks: “Do Not Condone Violence To Suppress Free Speech”


University of California at Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, who resigned last summer pending installment of a replacement (to be announced soon, it is said), has suffered the arrows of considerable criticism from his faculty, Bay Area media, and, to some extent, from me on this blog (e.g., here, here, and here).  But when a university administrator does or says the right things, it should be recognized.  And that is what Dirks, an historian of India, did in the op-ed piece below published by the Daily Californian on Friday under the title above.

“In a letter to the UC Berkeley community a week before Milo Yiannopoulos’ visit, I made clear that both our campus’s iconic commitment to free speech, as well as definitive First Amendment rulings by the Supreme Court, meant that we were obliged to support the invitation by a legitimate student organization of the speaker to campus. Those who suggest there was a legal path to cancellation of the event are mistaken. I also made clear that we recognized the equal right of members of the community to assemble lawfully and to protest the speaker and his views, consistent with another iconic identity of this campus around our history of protest.

“As a campus community, it befits us to debate issues about which we feel strongly, and to do so with respect for evidence, truth and for the power of argument. Indeed, it behooves us to have disagreements about issues small and large, and it is appropriate for our debates to make clear the urgency around matters related to the First Amendment, the significance of freedom of speech and expression, the law and the need as a community to be concerned about those individuals and groups who feel targeted and victimized by speech, whether on or off campus.

“Recent op-ed submissions to this newspaper have, however, shifted the debate from one about freedom of speech and the First Amendment to naked endorsements of violent suppression of free speech in the name of supposedly higher values. While I feel strongly about my commitment to debate and disagreement, I am horrified by the call to embrace the use of violence to contest views with which we may disagree.  Even if one believes that Yiannopoulos’ speech might potentially have constituted some form of rhetorical violence, meeting this threat with actual physical violence is antithetical to what we, as a community dedicated to open inquiry, must and do stand for.  Physical violence has absolutely no place on our campus.

“As a student of Indian history, I have long admired the heroic struggle mounted by Mohandas Gandhi against British imperial rule in India. Gandhi was famously known for his nonviolent approach to resistance, and for his influence on Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. What may be less-remembered today is that his deployment of “satyagraha” — roughly translated as the “force of truth” — was nonviolent, noncooperative, but never passive. It was a form of protest that was active, requiring immense courage of its adherents at the same time it required the full acknowledgement of the rule of law. Gandhi mounted protests to laws he felt were unjust and immoral, but submitted to the rule of law because, in the end, he believed that the most cherished principles of law either did, or could be made to, align with justice. When laws were unjust, he believed that nonviolent civil disobedience could call attention to this discrepancy, shining a bright light on ideas of justice that would accord with widely shared ideals rather than narrow imperial interests. By exemplifying these ideals in his actions, he believed the truth would eventually win. By practicing nonviolence, he could call attention to the violence of the oppressor. And on both counts history proved him right.

“In our present political moment, we need more than ever to cleave to the laws that protect our fundamental rights. The First Amendment is unequivocal in its almost unfettered protection of speech with which many might disagree, but which is the same protection that allows speech that others wish to hear.  We cannot support free speech selectively, even as we must understand that the commitment to justice, to free inquiry, to truth, is the very foundation of what we hold dear as the University of California. And we should heed the caution of leaders who have persevered in the face of calls for violence, remembering Gandhi’s famous phrase: “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” The University of California was founded with the motto “Fiat Lux,” let there be light. Now more than ever, let us make this light shine bright.”

Dirks’s piece attracted some comments on the Daily Cal website, including this one:

Unaccustomed as I am to agreeing with University administration, Chancellor Dirks is fundamentally correct on this. But you must understand, this talk had nothing to do with the unpleasant ideas Mr Yianopolous spouts. The sole purpose in asking the BCRs to invite him was to provoke an intemperate response, to prove the right wing’s myth that they are a persecuted on campus, like Christians claim to be persecuted. The purpose of Milo’s “talk” was to get a reaction, a ban would be great, a riot with flames at night? Pure gold.

It’s not that the preaching of hate isn’t a threat to people. It isn’t that our country’s government hasn’t fallen into the hands of very dangerous people indeed, and that we are in a dire emergency. But folks? Stuff as offensive as Milo’s goes out over Breitbart, Fox, Infowars and a variety of America’s bleeding sores. Don’t worry about whether or not it gets a platform. It has one. What is needed to fight its destructive ideas is better ideas. I’m afraid that the folks who voted to ban the talk, and who wanted to prevent the appearance, are taking this all too seriously, especially themselves. This is the UC campus, not the barricades in the capital. Had no one done anything, there would have been a small audience, who would have heard an offensive boor talk about excluding undocumented students from your community. No one not already a jerk would have been convinced, and he would be gone. Now a hundred self important bandanaed commandos have convinced half the country that they represent the Berkeley campus and community. Whether they were honest fools, or Breitbart extras is irrelevant. They performed their role for the cameras and should get their pay.

Well, said, I think.

3 thoughts on “Dirks: “Do Not Condone Violence To Suppress Free Speech”

  1. Gag. Nick Dirks along with the Dean of LAS cancelled a course on Palestinians last fall on speech grounds. This kind of selective promotion of freedom of speech is par for the course, because there is always a Palestinian exception to all of the abstractions to which we are so passionately attached

    • True enough, although the course was suspended and then reinstated and it can be argued that Dean Carla Hesse was more responsible than Dirks, but I won’t quibble. As I wrote in the post I have been critical of Dirks in the past. I didn’t cite this specific instance — although it was cited by Michael Meranze in a piece on Dean Hesse that I reposted earlier (see https://academeblog.org/2017/02/13/dissent-at-berkeley/). But for the record, here is Chris Newfield’s account of that controversy from the Remaking the University blog (http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2016/09/a-global-crisis-of-faculty-faith-two.html):

      “Same goes for the Berkeley administration’s suspension in the middle of the term of a student-taught course, ‘Palestine: A Colonial Settler Analysis.’ Dean Carla Hesse suspended the course on the same day that ’43 Jewish, civil rights, and education advocacy groups’ wrote to campus chancellor Nicholas Dirks to claim that the course was political advocacy, met the ‘government’s criteria for anti-Semitism,’ had been approved and was being taught by anti-Zionist zealots, and was out of compliance with UC Regents policy. And yet the course had been approved through a standard process in which faculty members have primary and ultimate authority over the curriculum–in this case the department’s acting chair and the Academic Senate. It also appears that the Berkeley administration would have taken no action without pressure from outside interest groups, and that the suspension was a response to this outside pressure. The chancellor and/or executive dean in this case intervened in the faculty’s core domain in response to an outside grievance, and they triggered national coverage of basic questions about academic freedom. For the blow by blow of that issue I refer you to John K. Wilson’s detailed analysis [https://academeblog.org/2016/09/15/berkeley-bans-a-palestine-class/], Berkeley professor Samera Esmeir’s commentary, and Dr. Wilson’s critique of Dean Hesse’s reinstatement letter [https://academeblog.org/2016/09/19/allowed-again-but-question-remain-about-suspension-of-berkeley-class/]. My point here is that various kinds of internal pressure were brought to bear, from every student in the course and also from Berkeley faculty, which resulted in the course’s reinstatement, and yet this kind of strong reaction is not going to be enough.

      “For the dean’s reinstatement letter claims both that deans ‘review, but do not approve the academic content’ of courses in this program and that this review legitimately asked about course content, that is, about ‘whether the stated objective for the course to ‘explore the possibility of a decolonized Palestine’ potentially violated Regents Policy by crossing over the line from teaching to political advocacy.’ The latter phrase does assert an administrative right to review content of these student-taught courses even when they are, as in this case, approved by the appropriate faculty. Dean Hesse’s position is thus that enforcement of University instructional policy does not lie with the faculty alone, but requires administrative supervision. This remains a departure from standard AAUP-based principles of faculty self-governance of instruction. It is consistent with the trend toward shifting the supervision of instruction reflected in the MOOC wave of 2012-13, where officials signed contracts with little faculty knowledge or input, and with the trend toward removing faculty from the university’s reputation management that enabled acts like the Board firing of Professor Steven Saliata from the University of Illinois and of Asst. Professor Melissa Click from the University of Missouri. While faculty reaction helped resolve the immediate UC Berkeley issue, faculty governance will be needed to reconstruct authority over curriculum in order to prevent such intrusions in the future.”

      I agree fully.

  2. The following comment is from a professor at the University of California at Irvine, who asked me to post it on his behalf:

    “Besides the case of the Palestine/Israel course there is the fact that MY’s events featured actions like “trigger cams” that focus on trans and other people in the audience, highlight them and then shame them and also lead to significant trolling and attacks/harassment of students singled out. this was raised by Judith Butler and other UCB faculty in a letter that should have been the basis for most opposition to him–not to the idea of him speaking per se, but the harassing and even dangerous practices that are part of his schtick. There was very good reason to not allow him to speak unless he agreed not to engage in thos actions. By not following such a common sense procedure, Dirks opened UCB up to the kinds of protest against the very possibility of his speaking that we ultimately saw. here is information about this issue: http://www.dailycal.org/2017/01/10/open-letter-calling-cancellation-milo-yiannopolous-event/

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