Last Wednesday night, a group of approximately 50 protesters interrupted a student event with famed venture capitalist Peter Thiel, prompting it to end early before its question and answer session. As a UC Berkeley graduate and the founder of the university’s libertarian club Students for Liberty, I could not be more ashamed of my alma mater. Despite being hailed as the home of the Free Speech Movement, it’s clear that Berkeley still needs to learn what free speech is.
At first blush, this statement may seem perplexing since protesters have just as much right to speak their mind as Peter Thiel. The issue at hand, however, is one of time and place. The protesters had every right to peacefully assemble and exercise their free speech in a public space. They do not, however, have the right to exercise their freedom of expression to silence Peter Thiel’s freedom of expression. This is known in First Amendment law as a “heckler’s veto” and is legally prohibited by university policy.
Just as professor has the right to evict a student who interrupts his or her lecture, so too could the Berkeley Forum have requested UCPD remove the protesters from the event without violating their free speech. Unfortunately, the heckler’s veto was so overwhelming on Wednesday that Thiel fled the building before the Berkeley Forum could take such action. This so-called protest was not meant to promote free speech; it was meant to destroy it.
If the protesters truly had intellectual ammunition to challenge Thiel, they could have raised their concerns in the forum’s question and answer session and hear his response. Or, if they believed that such an opportunity was not sufficient enough to convey their message, they could have continued to peacefully protested outside during the event — as they did for a few minutes before barging in.
However, it doesn’t seem like the movement had any intentions in mind besides being disruptive. Their shouts were largely vague rallying calls like “our university” and “no justice, no peace.” Only one chant gives a hint at what may have motivated the protest, “black lives matter,” likely responding to the recent spate of police shootings that have captured national attention. Yet, Peter Thiel has no connection to any of the shootings and, to the contrary, is well-known as an activist funding anti-militarization causes and candidates like Ron Paul.
The most tragic part of the protester’s disruption is that it ultimately undermines their noble cause. As a libertarian, I too stand against police militarization and empathize with the due process concerns of failing to bring the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner to trial. However, interrupting a peaceful, educational event with a respected entrepreneur will not advance our mutual cause but instead make the movement look kooky.
As a young libertarian, I chose to attend UC Berkeley because of its legacy of being a bastion for free speech and dissenting opinions. However, in my four years at Cal, I quickly learned that “freedom of speech for me, but not for thee” was too often standard operating procedure. My fellow Golden Bears need to learn that disruption for the sake of protest is not free speech; it is its enemy.
As liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill once wrote, “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race” regardless of how popular or even correct the speech may be. “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth,” he explains, “if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” If UC Berkeley still cherishes its liberal legacy, its students should take this thought from liberalism’s forefather to heart and stand up for all speech, regardless of content.
Casey Given is the managing editor of Young Voices, a policy project of the international libertarian nonprofit Students For Liberty. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric.