The University of California, Berkeley, has been at the center of the debate over free speech taking place on campuses across the country in recent months. The faculty is divided about how to interpret the First Amendment. Many students, too, feel conflicted.
We asked Berkeley students what free speech means to them, and about the mood on campus ahead of an event billed as “Free Speech Week.” Below is a selection of responses, which have been edited for length and clarity.
Some students talked about whether freedom of expression should be limited or unfettered.
I think that in order for speech to be free, all speech has to be free. Where restricting speech becomes problematic is that we can’t pick and choose what speech we allow. Imagine if we weren’t free to criticize the government at a time like this!
— Sarah Gallo, 25, a law student from Palatine, Ill.
Hate speech or speech that incites fear and violence against certain groups should not be allowed. It is illegal to shout fire in a closed room and this is no different. Some speakers are coming to “shout fire” in a university campus and ignite hatred toward student communities on campus.
— Sabreen Abdelrahman, 17, a political science major from Santa Clara, Calif.
I believe in court rulings on the matter of free speech, since the university is a public institution. Therefore such things as inciting direct violence should not be allowed, but things such as hate speech should be protected under First Amendment rights.
I don’t believe conservative speech is hate speech in the first place, but if it was, it’d be very clearly protected. Just as the students have a right to protest peacefully these speakers if they see fit.
— William Veroski, 22, an interdisciplinary studies major from Orcutt, Calif.
At U.C. Berkeley, I was surrounded by strong-minded and opinionated individuals who debated and engaged in discussions that emboldened my opinions and views. I speak with more passion about my convictions than ever before but now being back in Pakistan I understand the privilege that free speech is as well.
I speak up against the blasphemy laws and it is not uncommon for me to be silenced, told of the dangers to my life for even discussing such issues from those around me.
— Umar Akram, 22, a 2017 graduate from Lahore, Pakistan, with a double major in economics and political science
Speech that questions the very humanity of any person on campus has no place in a university. Let’s call it what it is: hate speech. There are people claiming that certain members of our community are not fully human, and we’re being asked to legitimize this as an admissible argument?
This is speech that attempts to limit the free speech rights of entire categories of people by virtue of their ascribed identities. It’s the ultimate irony: suppressing free speech under the banner of free speech.
— Zachary Levenson, 34, a graduate student from Richmond, Va., working toward a Ph.D. in sociology.
Some students were angered that the university has to spend money and provide security to provide a space on campus for these speeches. Others believed outsiders who weren’t part of the campus community were disrupting their education.
During the talk by Ben Shapiro, the helicopters over campus were so loud it was hard to focus on schoolwork, and last year my program almost had to cancel a final exam because of campus safety alerts. These protests don’t belong on our campus, especially since a lot of people coming to start violence at these events are not even part of the campus community.
— Sofia Hamilton, 24, a Ph.D. student from San Anselmo, Calif., studying civil and environmental engineering.
There will be over 200 police on campus in riot gear. There will be helicopters circling the campus all week while most students will be taking midterms. This is a school, first and foremost.
I believe all people should be able to speak here, but ultimately, it is very disruptive for students who pay upward of $30,000 and are just trying to graduate.
— Matt Flynn, 29, an electrical engineering and computer science major from Vacaville, Calif.
I’m worried that groups like Antifa are going to come back and as a result, students who are just trying to get through the day will not only feel physically in danger, but will also feel a sense of frustration and anxiety and danger from the idea that “public funds” (a.k.a. the financial aid of innocent students) could be threatened as a result of the week’s activities.
— Aurora L., 21, a peace and conflict studies major from Walnut, Calif.
A majority of students who shared their stories expressed concern about their safety. However, they were divided over who was to blame: the speeches and their participants, or the protesters. Many believed violent protests in the past and a heavy police presence has cast a shadow over campus.
“I am thoroughly petrified and fearful of my safety on this campus during Free Speech Week as a black woman. I have chosen to not attend my lectures next week in efforts to keeping myself safe on a campus that does not keep my safety as their number one priority.”
— Kathryn Taylor Swain, 21, a rhetoric and African-American studies major from Los Angeles.
I worry about the safety of queer and trans students like myself here who must wrestle with the questions, “Should I step back into the closet this week? Is that even possible? Is that weak, or is that wise?”
— Claire Danna, 20, an English and media studies double major from Los Angeles.
I am concerned about violent left-wing groups like Antifa and BAMN [By Any Means Necessary] harming students and innocent civilians as they have in the past. Hopefully a large police presence like there was at the recent talk by Ben Shapiro will dissuade the majority of the violence, but it is truly sad that an institution of learning and new ideas has become a hotbed for the violent repression of differing opinions.
— Malcolm Crawford, 22, a molecular and cell biology major from Los Angeles.
Walk around U.C. Berkeley. You will see barricades, cement blocks stacked on top of each other, officers strapped head to toe in riot gear, signs that tell students that we are trespassers and will be prosecuted if we step foot in certain areas of our own campus. I fight off waves of panic terrified someone will assault me for being of color, for being a woman, for being a student. This is a violent assertion of white privilege at a school largely made up of minorities.
— Salina I., 21, a sociology major from San Francisco