Free Expression

On a fall day in 1964, civil rights activist Mario Savio took off his shoes, climbed atop a police car on Berkeley campus, and started a movement. Inside the police car sat Jack Weinberg, a Berkeley alumnus arrested for distributing civil rights literature from a table in front of Sproul Hall. The crowd of students that Mario Savio addressed from his perch – with calls for an end to arbitrary restrictions on free speech – was preventing the police car from taking away the detained defender of free expression.

It was the event that birthed the Free Speech Movement (FSM), which pressed the University of California administration to allow students to practice free expression on campus. An outgrowth of the civil rights movement, Berkeley’s FSM spread its critique of Cold War restrictions to other campuses and heralded the creative political expression and youthful challenge of authority that became a defining element of the 1960s in the United States.

As the example of the FSM suggests, free expression is not a given, even in countries with constitutional guarantees of free speech. Movements for free expression involve not just catalytic individuals like Mario Savio or Jack Weinberg making his or her views public, but groups like the Berkeley students who formed FSM to demand their collective right of expression.  The struggle to safeguard free speech is an ongoing one.  Governments and social institutions, to maintain their control over society, frequently censor writers, artists, and thinkers.  In the United States, while the right of free speech on campus is generally enshrined, there have been numerous attempts to ban books from schools or movies from theaters.  Andres Serrano, with works such as Piss Christ, has provoked government agencies to withdraw funding for the museums that feature him.  Musical groups such as 2 Live Crew have deployed their music to expand the borders of what a society considers permissible.  Internationally, the list of writers who have been deprived of their ability to speak and publish in their own country is long, and includes such figures as Wole Soyinka in Nigeria and Anna Akhmatova in the Soviet Union.  Political movements around the world – Solidarity in Poland, the National League for Democracy in Burma – have struggled to create the conditions in which free expression can be pursued.

Are there any limits to free expression? At what point does unrestricted speech veer off into “hate speech”?  Should the right of an individual or group to advocate racist ideologies – the Nazis marching in Skokie Illinois or the Milles Collines radio station spreading anti-Tutsi propaganda in Rwanda – be protected by law or restricted?  Is Lolita a pornographic novel or a work of art?  To what extent does the market turn free expression into just another product to titillate the jaded consumer?  How does the global media industry, owned by large corporations, narrow the spectrum of expression?  How do powerful countries like the United States use the rhetoric of free expression as a Trojan Horse to destabilize countries whose foreign policies are not to Washington’s liking?

On a trip to the Provisions Library, take a look at Jo Freeman’s memoir/history of the Free Speech Movement (At Berkeley in the ‘60s), leaf through the censored articles collected in Peter Phillips’Censored 2005, check out the magazine Adbusterswhich spoofs the corporate advertising culture, go online to see The File Room archive of censorship, listen to the “smashed hits” recorded by theIndex on Censorship, and see the documentary Banned in the USA about 2 Live Crew.

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