It was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. In the early 1960s, the University of California at Berkeley led efforts to ensure that the First Amendment prevailed on college campuses. On Wednesday night, that legacy went up in smoke (literally).
The violent riots that stopped Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking that night also mark the end of any reasonable assumption that students or anyone else can exercise their right to speak freely while on the Berkeley campus. In its place stand intimidation and thuggish behavior, tolerated and even encouraged by faculty members.
The violent thugs – euphemistically described as “protestors” by the media – who shut down Yiannopoulos’ speech also want to silence anyone who dares disagree with their view of the world. What perfect irony that they denounced Yiannopoulos and President Trump as “fascists” and “Nazis,” even as they were starting fires, shattering windows and beating up those they perceived as their political enemies.
The First Amendment guarantees the right to speak; it does not guarantee the right to threaten, assault or intimidate people for exercising their right to speak. If the Berkeley hooligans want to see true fascists or Nazis, they should look in the mirror. Their actions Wednesday night were drawn straight out of Hitler’s Brownshirts Playbook. Their uniforms—scarves and masks covering their faces—were an homage to the KKK nightriders.
Their misbehavior wasn’t just deplorable; it was criminal. 18 U.S.C. §241 makes it a criminal violation to “injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person… in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution.” That includes denying individuals the ability to enjoy their First Amendment right to speak.
The goons at Berkeley fall foul of this 1948 civil rights statute, not just because of what they did, but because of how they did it. Section 241 was intended to stop the masked nightriders of the KKK. It specifically makes it a violation of the law when “two or more persons go in disguise on the highway, or on the premises of another, with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege so secured.”
While the rioters are guilty of federal crimes, their faculty enablers are guilty of being fools. As Heather McDonald has pointed out, emails from the Berkeley academy on the night of the riot “reveal the mindset of entitled left-wing privilege.”
Professor Katrin Wehrheim thanked everyone for coming out. She didn’t mind the violence at all since the buildings being attacked and destroyed were “large corporation buildings.” Another professor, Deborah Blocker, also excused the destruction because the “protestors” only attacked property “very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancellation order for the event.”
So apparently, members of the faculty are fine with violence and property destruction as long as it achieves its objective: silencing an invited speaker that many on campus wanted to hear. As Heather McDonald notes, it’s doubtful these professors would be so sanguine if their “million-dollar hillside bungalow or cherished Prius” was burned.
Wehrheim and Blocker don’t appear to be outliers in the faculty lounge. Dozens of Berkeley professors signed a letter to the chancellor of the university demanding the cancellation of the speaking event because they disagree with Yiannopoulos’s views on the Black Lives Matter movement, diversity programs on campuses, and the transgender issue, among other matters. Apparently, speaking anything other than the shared, politically correct wisdom of these professors on any of these questions constitutes “harassment, slander, defamation, and hate speech.”
No one denies that Yiannopoulus is often outrageous in his statements and speech. But just because we disagree with some or all of his views or dislike the way he expresses them does not give us the right to strip him of his protections under the First Amendment. And it certainly gives no one the right to use violence to silence him.
Open, free and vigorous—but peaceful—debate is supposed to be the hallmark of the academic community. At Berkeley, it no longer exists.
What happened there is shameful and intolerable. It is also an apparent violation of federal civil rights laws, as were the actions of masked anarchists in Washington during the inauguration. The U.S. Justice Department should rouse from its slumber, enforce the law and rein in the violence.
And it’s high time for universities like Berkeley to stop tolerating such misbehavior on their campuses. Violent students should be held accountable. And faculty members who incite or excuse criminal behavior should be disciplined, suspended, or fired. Otherwise, what are supposed to be institutions of higher learning will devolve into institutions of intolerance, leading the nation along a woeful transformation into a truly fascist state where differences of opinion are brutally quashed and the First Amendment is struck from the Bill of Rights.
Hans A. von Spakovsky is a Senior Legal Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Along with John Fund, he is the coauthor of “Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk” and “Obama’s Enforcer: Eric Holder’s Justice Department.”