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The University of California, Berkeley, is justifiably proud of its reputation for social activism. It was there, of course, that the campus free speech movement began in 1964. In the years that followed, the school triggered a wave of antiwar and civil rights protests that still resonates today. Of course, those protests also prompted a backlash that altered politics in the state and the nation for decades to come.

The free speech movement played a pivotal role in the history of American civil liberties. Sparked by the university’s restrictions on political activities on campus, it symbolized the fight for free speech and academic freedom. Under leaders like Mario Savio, students organized sit-ins and protests, which culminated in the arrest of over 800 students. This movement set the stage for future student activism on campuses nationwide.

During the 1960s, Berkeley also became a central hub for the anti–Vietnam War movement, hosting large-scale protests and teach-ins. These protests were part of a wider national movement against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, reflecting growing disillusionment with the government and military intervention abroad.

In 1969, Berkeley’s Third World Liberation Front led a strike demanding an ethnic studies department and highlighting issues of racial discrimination and lack of diversity in university curricula and admissions. This movement was instrumental in establishing ethnic studies as a discipline at universities across the United States.

The disability rights movement at UC Berkeley was similarly pioneering, with students advocating for accessibility, rights and recognition. This activism contributed to significant policy changes, both on campus and nationally, including the development of the independent living movement and influencing the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

Berkeley has also been a center for environmental activism, with students engaging in movements advocating for sustainability, climate action and environmental justice. This includes involvement in local and global campaigns, research initiatives and the promotion of sustainable practices on campus.

In recent years, student activism at UC Berkeley has continued to address a wide range of issues, including racial justice, sexual assault awareness, immigrant rights and more. The university’s students remain at the forefront of advocating for social change, equality and justice both within the university and in the wider society.

However, recent incidents, where speakers have been shut down or presentations have been disrupted, differ from earlier forms of activism on the campus in several key respects. One difference involves the protests’ focus and methods. Many recent instances of activism have centered on hate speech and the perceived spread of harmful ideologies. These actions have at times prioritized preventing opposing viewpoints from being expressed on campus.

Because many of those speakers were brought to campus for no other reason than to provoke, incite, goad and inflame, activist protests were relatively easy to defend or ignore. But these protests set precedents that haunt the campus today.

There has also been a change in perception and reception. The free speech movement and other protest movements were widely considered expressions of a moral imperative to challenge unjust authority and promote democratic values. In contrast, shutting down of speakers raises a very different question: the role of universities as spaces for open dialogue, academic freedom and viewpoint diversity.

In addition, the context and environment in which protests are occurring has changed in significant ways. Today’s activism occurs in the context of increasing political polarization, the rise of social media as a platform for discourse and organization, and heightened awareness of issues like racial and gender discrimination, free speech, and safe spaces. This environment influences both the forms that activism takes and the issues that are prioritized.

Earlier forms of activism at UC Berkeley were, generally, aimed at policy changes, such as allowing free speech on campus or establishing ethnic studies departments. These movements sought to expand rights and freedoms. While still concerned with effecting change, a number of recent protests have emphasized preventing perceived harm by limiting the platforms available to certain speakers or ideologies.

Despite these differences, both historical and recent student activism at UC Berkeley share underlying motivations of advocating for perceived justice, challenging the status quo and striving for a better society.

You and I may disagree about the best ways to achieve a just and inclusive society and to influence the direction of domestic and foreign policy. I suspect, however, that we may well agree that a university that suppresses protest and advocacy for social justice or that muffles challenges to the status quo is a campus that has lost sight of part of its essential mission: to foster an environment where diverse ideas and perspectives can be explored and debated, produce an engaged citizenry and contribute to the advancement of a more just and equitable society.

Yet while campuses should continue to serve as catalysts for social justice and equity, it is also essential that they remain bastions of learning and inquiry that encourage critical thinking and ethical reasoning, emphasize inclusivity in all forms—religious and ideological included—and protect democratic values.

The failure of UC Berkeley earlier this week to prevent demonstrators from disrupting a talk by a guest speaker and allowing these protesters to compromise attendees’ safety is utterly appalling and needs to be condemned in the strongest terms by the faculty, the UC system, the academy’s professional organizations and the institution’s accreditor.

It is not enough for the university’s senior leadership to reaffirm its commitment to the principles of free speech after it has failed to maintain the level of campus safety that is the essential foundation for academic inquiry and scholarly discourse.

When senior leadership states that it “will in the days ahead decide on the best possible path to fully understand what happened and why; to determine how we will address what occurred; and to do everything possible to preclude a repeat of what happened,” it is patently obvious that the campus lacks appropriate procedures and enforceable policies to ensure a safe, welcoming, diverse and inclusive intellectual environment.

Expressions of “deep remorse and sympathy” ring hollow in the wake of such an incident. This is not a matter of balancing the right to protest with the right of guest speakers to voice their views. By allowing acts of harassment, intimidation, incitement and violent disruption targeted at specific individuals and groups to go unchecked, the campus has undercut and stifled academic discourse and endangered the safety of its students, faculty and staff.

UC Berkeley’s core values—including its commitment to academic freedom, inclusivity and the right to open dialogue—have been violated. Campus leadership needs to be questioned; the appropriate disciplinary process, in line with institutional and system policies, need to be invoked immediately; and corrective action and policy changes need to be undertaken forthwith.

I understand that university leadership is in a tough position, though it is, in part, one of its own making.

I, for one, don’t begrudge campus presidents who have spoken out on issues of social justice, including the murder of George Floyd—though I believe that this should have been expressed in terms of tangible institutional commitments to access, affordability, outreach, student support and community service.

But by creating an expectation that the colleges or universities would take an institutional stance on a seemingly endless list of issues, these campus leaders have left their institutions vulnerable to the charge of selective outrage and opened the door to academic departments and programs adopting political positions that are at odds with diversity of thought.

The challenge now facing campuses, including UC Berkeley, is to define and enforce ground rules for protest that are compatible with a broader commitment to academic freedom, free speech, inclusivity and diversity of viewpoints. Anything less is a dereliction of duty.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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