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From the Archives: The Leadership and Decency Gap at UC-Berkeley

Free speech must be available to all.

Every fall, I don my gear, trek down to an out-of-the-way pub, and sit breathlessly as I watch my California Golden Bears blow another football season despite having NFL-caliber talent on the field. (Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, Deshaun Jackson, and Jared Goff all sported the blue and gold.)

But that doesn’t sicken my heart; college athletics are a distraction from the primary purpose of the greatest public university known to man. The rioting, violence, and disorder that marred campus on Wednesday night do.

UC-Berkeley was conceived as a public trust, a state institution to educate the residents of the Golden State in the liberal arts and practical sciences. It exists to advance thought, enhance the pursuit of knowledge, and steer men and women of high intelligence toward a life of truth-seeking.

But it has devolved. A university with the motto Fiat Lux—“Let There Be Light”—has descended into darkness, marked by anger and outrage, a totalitarian groupthink imposed by intimidation, and an utter void where decency and collegiality should reign.

Milo Yiannopoulos, the slated speaker this week, is not my brand of civic leader or political rallying point. He expresses outrageous, indecent, and plain mean sentiments about those with whom he disagrees or simply dislikes. But the event, organized by the Berkeley College Republicans, was not a legitimate cause for burning property, attacking innocents, and disrupting the education of the many thousands of students who peacefully pursue their educational dreams at Berkeley.

As Berkeley’s own storied history shows, free speech is not a right reserved to the polite, the upstanding, or the politically fashionable. It must be available to all.

The unrest that roiled campus is not new. In the early 1960s, Berkeley launched the Free Speech Movement to throw off the shackles of stifling university bureaucrats. A motley crew of leftists, anarchists, and, yes, arch-conservative Barry Goldwater supporters banded together to stand up for the rights of students to protest, speak out, and actively participate in their campus discourse.

The famous leader of that movement, Mario Savio, who is almost beatified in Berkeley lore, referred to the university officials and their government allies as a “machine” that required active resistance, saying: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus—and you’ve got to make it stop!”

But his so-called successors often forget how Savio continued, “That doesn’t mean—I know it will be interpreted to mean … that doesn’t mean that you have to break anything.” He explicitly opposed violence as a means of resistance.

That sentiment, and the movement’s ties to Goldwater, is lost on the agitators and enforcers of groupthink that predominate on campus. Instead, they are hell-bent on shutting down dissent.

When I attended more than a decade ago, the Students for Justice in Palestine, a radical anti-Semitic, anti-Israel group, interrupted final exams. When the police intervened, the group’s leader attacked an officer and bit him. The student’s reward? A full scholarship for a Ph.D. in the pseudo-discipline of ethnic studies.

More recently, a group blocked white students from using the main entrance of campus, simply because of their skin color.

So who is to blame? The rioters, of course, but as then-gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan remarked in 1966, “There has been a leadership gap and a morality and decency gap at the University of California at Berkeley.”

The blame for the riots really falls on Nicholas Dirks, the chancellor of the university, and Janet Napolitano, the University of California system’s president. They have totally abdicated their role as facilitators of the original “safe space”—an orderly, safe, and well-functioning learning environment. Instead, the campus police are forced to tweet warnings such as, “If on campus, stay indoors and away from windows.”

Cowering in fear is not conducive to the free and full pursuit of knowledge.

Dirks and Napolitano have created the circumstances where the heckler’s-cum-rioter’s veto is sacrosanct. If you are violent and unhinged enough, university officials will cave.

So long as they remain in charge, maybe the motto should be altered to read: Fiat Tenebris, or “Let There Be Darkness.”

Sean Kennedy is a 2006 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley.