“The idea of the Free Speech Movement [is] that every view is permissible. If you don’t believe in free speech for Adolf Hitler, you don’t believe in free speech.”
Since the election of Donald Trump, the concept of “free speech” has been doing a lot of heavy lifting for the “alt-right,” a coalition of far-right conservatives generally aligned with white nationalism, misogyny and xenophobia. Although “the right to free speech” has traditionally been associated with leftist political movements, it has proven fairly politically malleable since last November, to the point of providing legal legitimation for the spread of Neo-Nazi ideology, as well as the perpetuation of structural and physical violence against people of color, transgender people, disabled people and the undocumented.
Notably, former Breitbart troll Milo Yiannopoulos relied heavily on the First Amendment when he nearly staged a talk at UC Berkeley where he planned to use his “free speech” rights to publicly reveal the names of undocumented students and train their peers how to report them for deportation. In recent weeks, downtown Berkeley has experienced growing waves of far-right “free speech” rallies organized by loosely affiliated white supremacist groups like Identity Evropa and Oath Keepers that draw in armed white nationalists from around the country, and increasingly, far-right representatives from fringe groups. These rallies have quickly escalated into physically violent confrontations with local anti-fascist and anti-racist organizers from a broad swath of sectors.
At this moment of heightened tension and violence, we are also witnessing a concerning convergence of far-right conservatives and left-leaning liberals on a shared, fundamentalist approach to free speech. Many members of both groups, including “alt-right” personalities like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, along with liberal university administrators, argue that free speech, no matter how unpalatable, must be an absolute right for all or it will work for none. While some on the left argue that the “alt-right” has co-opted the supposedly radical underpinnings of “free speech” rights, our analysis moves deeper into this debate and examines how the disembodied framework of free speech itself has always been fundamentally flawed. By failing to address the material conditions and uneven distributions of power that structure people’s access to rights and protections, appeals to free speech rights have historically been used not to encourage the sharing of diverse ideas, but as a means of expanding the growth of often violent right-wing movements.
In what follows, we revisit the events that took place on the UC Berkeley campus from 1964-1965, or what has since been dubbed the Free Speech Movement (FSM). Since this time, UC Berkeley administrators have relied on a highly romanticized version of these events, largely in order to court a donor base that is financially invested in promoting the school’s image as the so-called “home of free speech.” This sanitized version of the FSM has anchored Berkeley’s reputation as an alleged space of countercultural resistance, even as administrators have wielded their power to silence marginalized voices while simultaneously protecting the speech rights of the far-right.
In order to dismantle this romanticized version of events, we take a deeper, more critical examination of this supposed “Home of Free Speech™” and argue that the very framework of free speech rights developed during the FSM — a time nostalgically remembered by the American public as the apex of leftist countercultural student movements — was, in fact, a mechanism to build coalition between liberals and conservatives. We trace these developments through one character in particular, John Searle, who played a key role in bridging this particular campus divide through the promotion of a sanitized, depoliticized free speech framework in the early sixties. Finally, we demonstrate how this legacy bears on the contemporary resurgence of free speech as a tool to advance conservative white nationalist, anti-immigrant agendas.
John Searle’s Beginnings at Berkeley
Celebrated as UC Berkeley’s star philosophy professor and prominent theorist on speech acts, Searle recently occupied news headlines in a less favorable light when his former student assistant Joanna Ong came forward with disturbing accounts of Searle having sexually harassed her on multiple occasions. Revealing the ways in which Searle’s misogynistic violence is intertwined with fantasies of racial and imperial domination, Ong reported that after she asked the philosophy professor about his thoughts on American imperialism, he replied, “American imperialism? Oh boy, that sounds great, honey! Let’s go to bed and do that right now!” Predictably, in this case, UC Berkeley administrators did not defend Ong’s free speech rights, instead trying to make her story disappear and refusing to comply with Public Records Act requests, even as the school has been under heightened scrutiny for mishandling many other cases of sexual violence involving high-level faculty and administrators.
Rather than view Searle’s history of sexual violence as incidental to his involvement in the FSM, we argue that the two are, in fact, inextricable, demonstrating how one of the movement’s foundational theorists used his institutional power to perpetuate misogynistic, racist, xenophobic violence to silence an individual most in need of the right to speak freely about her experiences. In fact, it was likely Searle’s crucial role in the suppression of militant leftist student movements that motivated university administrators to protect him amid mounting cases of sexual violence that accumulated over decades. By tracing Searle’s toxic contributions to the FSM, we show how the dynamic of bolstering the speech rights of those who seek to oppress others while silencing those who experience oppression was embedded in the FSM from its inception.
Then a relatively new professor of philosophy working on an academic book on Speech Act Theory, John Searle became the first faculty member to join the FSM in the fall of 1964, during which time a young and charismatic student with a gift for public speaking named Mario Savio was enrolled in his class. Now remembered as the most famous of the FSM alumni, Savio became involved in local civil rights during his time at UC Berkeley, organizing with Black hotel workers who were protesting racist hiring practices. As the conservative-aligned university administration sought to silence this organizing on campus, what began as an anti-racist campaign organized alongside local Black workers transformed into a more politically tepid campus campaign to fight the university administration’s stance on free speech.
Searle was one of the key figures who effected this shift. Beginning that same fall of 1964, he became deeply involved in the budding Free Speech Movement primarily through his student, Mario Savio. Critically, Searle’s participation in the FSM occurred in the midst of the growing power of the Black-led civil rights movement coupled with a large-scale government attempt to surveil and suppress student unrest. In 1965-1967, just as the FSM was giving way to more militant student resistance, Searle took a position working for the university administration as special assistant to the chancellor for student affairs. During this time, he compiled notes for a book commissioned by the US government titled The Campus War, acting as an inside informant on the student movement’s permutations. In effect, Searle’s text serves as a manual for university administrators on how to most efficiently dismantle radical student protests, taking particular aim at student participations in local Black movement organizing.
As Searle’s close relationship with university bureaucrats reveals, his political commitments were not in fact centered on supporting students’ rights to challenge the censorship of university administrators, but to quell growing and increasingly militant anti-racist dissent on the UC Berkeley campus. Years later, Searle made his position clear when he reflected,
People wanted a political university. They wanted it to be a left-wing university and I was determined not to let that happen. And in that respect I succeeded.
Searle agreed to help put an end to mounting student unrest that sought fundamental transformations within and beyond the university:
People thought the world revolution was going to start in Berkeley and we’re going to have a completely different kind of campus and all this sort of nonsense. When the new chancellor came in basically he said to me “You made this mess; now you’ve got to clean it up. Put up or shut up.” I said, “OK, I will.”
One of Searle’s techniques for demobilizing student involvement in militant leftist and anti-racist struggles was to disarticulate the student movement from a direct relationship with local civil-rights organizing. Instead, Searle encouraged students to focus on their own far more abstract rights to free speech, recognizing that this political goal would be palatable to conservative students. This strategy helped Searle and others shift campus momentum away from Black labor struggles and toward forming a coalition between conservatives and liberals on the shared topic of free speech rights.
The FSM coalition is highly revealing in this regard. While the movement is typically associated with supposedly radical, leftist students, notably among those listed as core members on a university website promoting the 50th anniversary of the FSM was a politically conservative libertarian student named Mona Hutchins, also a prominent member of the UC Berkeley Young Republicans. Although she did not share a commitment to civil rights espoused by the more liberal members of the group, Hutchins nevertheless embraced the FSM’s advocacy for the rights of students to promote a broad range of political beliefs. Seeing an opportunity to advance her own conservative platform, Hutchins soon became a member of the politically powerful FSM steering committee.
Hutchins’s example makes clear how the FSM was ideologically and politically incoherent from its inception. Rather than maintaining a commitment to organizing with local Black workers, the FSM’s largely white, middle-class leadership courted white, conservative UC Berkeley students like Mona Hutchins. This strategy of building coalition with right-wing students was designed to appeal to the respectability politics of a conservative-aligned university administration. On this decision of the FSM to focus its energies on building a more conservative-leaning coalition, Savio later acknowledged, “I must admit that most of our tactics were planned more around keeping the coalition [among liberals and conservatives] together, rather than actually defeating the administration’s position [of opposing Civil Rights activism on campus]…. So we had to really court the middle of the road and the right wing.”
Rather than create a mass movement founded on a shared commitment to ending racial oppression, the FSM’s goal of a joint coalition between far-right and liberal factions around the question of free speech ultimately served to disconnect the student movement from anti-racist struggles, focusing instead on the more abstract and disembodied right to free speech. Years later, reflecting on the FSM and his work to make “the University … function as an intellectual institution rather than as a political institution,” Searle noted:
I wanted free speech, but [only free speech] that was very much within the tradition of liberal, constitutional democracy. I did not want a Marxist revolution in this country and I didn’t want a small Marxist revolution on this campus. And I did everything I could to fight against it.
Moving Beyond the Framework of Speech Rights
That Searle’s unwavering support for the abstract idea of free speech did not contradict his antagonism toward racial justice, feminism and antiwar efforts points to a fundamental flaw in the free speech framework itself. The FSM’s story is not one of heroic student revolt that liberated the UC Berkeley students from a repressive political climate. Rather, it was a largely white, male, middle-class movement that drew superficially upon civil rights tactics without, however, incorporating the latter’s analysis of race or class, let alone gender, into its framework. In fact, its vague political commitments and lack of critical analysis of racial power in particular were key to the FSM’s perceived success, enabling the movement to build inroads with powerful conservative student groups, such as the Young Republicans. It is no wonder that the FSM failed to make any real structural changes to the repressive apparatus of the university.
From this vantage point, the FSM and the framework of free speech Searle helped theorize has never moved beyond the vague demands of a small group of relatively privileged people’s access to free speech, which now includes the explicit promotion of racial violence. Yet, the campus is adorned with fetishized black-and-white photographs of (white) student resistance lining the walls of UC Berkeley’s “Free Speech Cafe,” where prospective students and alumni donors can linger over a latte as they gaze with misty-eyed nostalgia on the radical legacy of their alma mater, a legacy that has proven highly selective in the kinds of speech and speaking bodies it deems worthy of protection. Tellingly, official university branding harbors no such nostalgia for other movements that centered people of color and their direct demands for material and political resources, such as the Third World Liberation Front, which organized the longest running strikes [1968-1969] in the university’s history to date.
In hindsight, it becomes clear that the “alt-right”‘s current use of the free speech framework as a cover for the spread of genocidal politics is actually a logical extension of the FSM — not, as some leftists would have it, a co-optation of its originally “radical” intentions. In addition to the increasingly violent “free speech rallies” organized in what “alt-right” members have dubbed “The Battle for Berkeley,” the use of free speech as a legitimating platform for white supremacist politics has begun to spread throughout the country.
And the stakes of this debate continue to escalate. Only days before the time of this writing, famed white-nationalist organizer and founder of the “alt-right” movement Richard Spencer organized a nighttime torch-lit rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that directly and deliberately recalls frightening images of the KKK. His aim: to protest the pending removal of a racist Confederate statue that upholds the legacy of slavery and racial terror in the American South. Once again, Spencer mobilized his followers under the banner of free speech.
Given these events, it is both timely and urgent that we release ourselves from the nostalgic hold of FSM to make room for reflection, critique and militant movement beyond depoliticized and increasingly fascist demands for free speech. We must demand the right to speak only insofar as that demand is coupled with a clear political commitment to anti-racist and other anti-oppressive struggles, lest our movements function primarily as mechanisms to build inroads not with those facing oppression, but with those who perpetuate it.