The Free Speech Movement Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary, but the Eternal Battle Between Liberty and Power Goes On

Free speech is an eternally radical idea, so it is always under threat at all times in human history.” —Greg Lukianoff

October 1 marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, the iconic student rebellion that rocked the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, during the tumultuous 1960s. As summarized by Berkeley’s Alumni Gazette:

The resulting protests, unprecedented in scope, were the harbinger of the student power, civil liberties, and antiwar demonstrations that convulsed college campuses throughout the country for the next decade…. After decades of ambivalence, UC Berkeley is finally embracing this important part of its history.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary, the university administration sponsored a large number of classes, lectures, concerts, and exhibits alongside unofficial events organized by current and former activists. Near the end of September, a reunion took place that brought together veterans of the original Free Speech Movement.

On Saturday, September 27, I went to Berkeley to take part in the festivities and explore the legacy of a seminal movement that shaped American history. I heard many interesting stories from old-timers as well as current activists reflect on their experiences and discuss modern controversies. As one might expect, some of the panels and audience responses became very heated. I couldn’t help but notice a strong tension between the civil libertarian and “social justice” wings of the Left. This particular controversy carried over into a panel that discussed current challenges to free speech and academic freedom. Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), lamented the fact that large numbers of activists from the 1960s and 70s, once they became administrators and faculty, used their new powers to push through “speech codes” and enforce political correctness. We’re now reaping the rotten fruits on many campuses where environments of ideologically driven censorship and a trend of “unlearning liberty” are the norm, not the exception. As of January 2014, FIRE has documented that almost 60 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities have unconstitutional speech codes.

Clearly, advocates of free speech still have much work to do. As anyone who has been through higher education knows well, the modern American campus is not particularly friendly to views that dissent from left-wing orthodoxy. But this is not and shouldn’t be a partisan clash of Left versus Right, or Democrat versus Republican. The battle will always between liberty versus power, and the individual versus the collective. Lukianoff is absolutely right to emphasize that “free speech is an eternally radical idea, so it is always under threat at all times in human history.”

The good news, broadly speaking, is that current signs seem to show that many Millennials are mistrustful of authority and support full freedom of expression. A number of recent events are reaffirming the revolutionary spirit of youth. In one Colorado school district, for example, hundreds of students staged walkouts in protest of a new proposed curriculum that ironically downplayed civil disobedience and resistance to authority. In Hong Kong, a largely student-driven (including many as young as twelve) protest movement has mobilized tens of thousands of protestors into the streets to push back against Beijing’s attempt to further control the city’s elections. In the city Milton Friedman once praised as the exemplar of a free market economy, it is thrilling to see youth stand up for individual rights, free elections, and local autonomy instead of demanding for more central government control and one-size-fits-all “solutions” for societal ills.

All over the world, people of all ages make use of the treasured principle of free speech to speak out against abusive authority. The legacy of the Free Speech Movement is still being felt today. Even for those who might not agree with its ideological positions and perceive excesses from the 1960s, the lessons for contemporary student activism are profound. If anything, it is important to recognize that rights are like muscles. They become stronger through regular exercise, and they atrophy from neglect. Let us the hope the current generation honors and expands upon the human freedom that was accomplished by their forebears.

Aaron Tao is the former Assistant Editor of the Independent Institute's blog, The Beacon.
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