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UC Berkeley Changes Could Provide Road Map to Political Civility

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Inside Higher Ed just gave University of California, Berkeley a pass for civility, namely political civility, on campus. Calling the university civil is a sharp turn from allegations of First Amendment oppression in the wake of the Milo Yiannopoulos debacle that left the campus scarred, literally and theoretically, a little less than two years ago.

The assessment did not come easily –  it took some grit, hard work and hard choices on the part of the administration and student groups to get to a place where political “civility” is even a thing. But according to recent reports and general observation, it seems the once embroiled campus has made great strides toward that goal and if that can at all be replicated and scaled out, maybe we should pay attention to what they are doing.

It may have been a bitter pill to swallow (with reluctance) but when the Commission on Free Speech reported its findings and suggestions related to the university’s failures in said Milo disaster, the administration took the suggestions into consideration and implemented some real changes. For one, they revised their free speech policy and established the Western Crescent area of the campus as an additional space where large protests can gather without prior permitting. Upper Sproul Plaza will remain available to large impromptu gatherings, but the lower level is now subject to the major events policy. Areas were chosen for pragmatic reasons – by identifying specific protest locations, away from key buildings, the administration can mitigate impact to campus operations (and theoretically be a little less on the offense when the masses arrive).

The changes have largely been a concerted and collaborative effort between administration, who had to acknowledge their excessive use of police intimidation, and student groups, who had to acknowledge that prior leaders often did extend controversial invitations with the intent to provoke. Both sides had to come down a notch and trust in each other going forward. As sure as we can be that challenges still exist, we can be equally sure that the efforts have at least helped alleviate the tension, and we know this because there has been a lack of riot news out of Cal since changes began rolling out. “No gnews is good gnews,” right?

The administration and students had to agree on two things: opposing views and debate are welcome but insulting and abusive speakers are not. It seems so simple, doesn’t it? By making it a priority to book speakers who encourage healthy and positive exchange, regardless of ideology, the university has managed to host conservative events and cross-political discussions without somebody setting the place on fire.

“Students and administrators credit the change in part to the intent of the speakers coming to the university: not to rile up the student body, but instead to engage in discussion. The speakers voiced conservative views but did not insult Berkeley students or groups of students, as others had previously.”

In addition to changing of guards among political student groups, new student-led organizations like BridgeUSA have emerged with a focus on the promotion of civil political discourse. According to Inside Higher Ed, the administration is utilizing these groups as a sounding board before responding to outside political organizations, careful to consider free speech implications for students of all political or apolitical ideologies.

Although the administration and students devised methods of civil communication specifically for the university campus, there is much we can learn from the basic measures they took and the environment they are attempting to create by way of acknowledging each other’s rights to exist, identifying past wrongs and implementing means to correct, creating secure spaces for peaceful dissent, withholding intimidation or violence when unnecessary, facilitating healthy exchanges of differing views and welcoming only those outsiders who promote healthy exchanges. Debate on campus is still passionate and impasses are still reached where people agree to disagree; however, there’s less of the hate and violence involved and that is a good thing.

Of course, this is just a summary, just a sliver of reform the university and student body have had to move through (no doubt, with some discomfort) in order to alleviate pressure on the cooker and protect the legacy of the Free Speech Movement, which ascended from the mouth of Mario Savio on the steps of the same Upper Sproul Plaza where protesters still gather today. It is a piece of the university’s history that forged its way into history textbooks across the country, history that has burrowed into our whole American story, in the chapter that celebrates protest and resistance, social justice and the right to free speech. That history and its implications are as “American” as apple pie and deserves saving, at Cal and throughout the country.



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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.