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Free Speech at Berkeley: Where’s Mario?

 

Jasmine’s statement had to do with the righteousness of U.C. Berkeley’s decision to shut down an event on campus featuring Ann Coulter as speaker.

 

 

There is a long answer to Jasmine’s thoughtful statement so let me begin. First, I have agreed with and supported the ACLUs stance on free speech ever since I became aware that the ACLU exists. I lost friends for standing with the organization when it found it necessary to argue for the right of a group of NAZIs to hold a march on the streets of Skokie, Illinois and, being a Jewish kid, this was not a popular stance with most of the people I knew. Those in Skokie wanting to stop the march argued that the march would further traumatize the Jewish people in the neighborhood where the march was to take place, many of the people survivors of the holocaust. The ACLU, and organization, amongst its founders and its supporters a good many Jewish men and women, would have had to abandon its core principle of upholding the Constitutional rights of citizens if it failed to side with the NAZIS. I do base my contention that the benefit of the doubt in free speech matters must go to those wanting to speak and that there be a very strong show of cause for denying anyone the right to speak

There is a long answer to Jasmine’s thoughtful statement so let me begin. First, I have agreed with and supported the ACLUs stance on free speech ever since I became aware that the ACLU exists. I lost friends for standing with the organization when it found it necessary to argue for the right of a group of NAZIs to hold a march on the streets of Skokie, Illinois and, being a Jewish kid, this was not a popular stance with most of the people I knew. Those in Skokie wanting to stop the march argued that the march would further traumatize the Jewish people in the neighborhood where the march was to take place, many of the people survivors of the holocaust.

The ACLU, and organization, amongst its founders and its supporters a good many Jewish men and women, would have had to abandon its core principle of upholding the Constitutional rights of citizens if it failed to side with the NAZIS. I do base my contention that the benefit of the doubt in free speech matters must go to those wanting to speak and that there be a very strong show of cause for denying anyone the right to speak and I do, indeed, base my argument on certain generalizations, call them principles if you will, that I understand to be the basic underlying principles for the American democracy.

If you look at the Declaration, one of the most important “generalizations” made, this reflecting other generalizations such as the natural rights of human beings to such things as life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, is the one that serves as the primary reason for severing the connection to King George and England, the generalization that says that to disrespect the opinions of men (as writ) obligates a people to bring about revolution. Disrespect for the opinions of the people is the primary reason stated to support the Revolutionary war!!! So watch it if you want to mess with free speech which is THE right that is essential to individual freedom, individual freedom being the primary reason for securing a democracy. When you write “Stephen, this is exactly the kind of generalization that I’m tired of hearing in conversations like this.

There are very real ideological impacts worth weighing against the pragmatic ones, but that’s not what is happening when you say these things, I am more than angered because you are not only being condescending but also speaking the absurd.” You are demeaning what I say because I use generalizations to back my claims? Generalizations are what keep us from adjudicating unfairly, of treating the one differently than the other. The basis for ever good law and rule is a generalization, based in generalization, one being fairness and another that it is of good sense to have a particular law or rule. What we are dealing with here, what you want me to accede to is the righteousness of making determinations that are based on situation rather than general principle and this is where democratic meets tyrannical if situation is allowed to take precedence over general principles.

Yes, I fully agree that speech can be dangerous, that it can incite acts that harm. But freedom of speech is worth erring on the side of allowing people to say what they wish to say. And only in extreme situations should we allow freedom of speech to be abridged. I remember a group of students at UNR protesting loudly that Ralph Nader should not be allowed to speak on campus and another group trying to shut down a Michael Moore event. I remember many occasions in Los Angeles when we who were protesting the Viet Nam war were endangering others by marching in front of Los Angeles City College. I remember the Black Student Union consistently being denied the permits they had to obtain to be permitted to speak and the arrests that followed their attempts to speak (illegally!) when permits were denied. So please, do think of general principles. Really, I do not care if you are tired of hearing conversations like this. I engage in them because a general principle by which I have abided my entire adult life is that it is important that citizens of democracies engage in principled conversation in order to insure that the laws are such that they serve the people well and that there is agreement on general notions of what constitutes wellness of the whole.

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