Free Speech Restored In Berkeley

[ Posted Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 – 14:56 UTC ]

Good news for the Bill of Rights out of Berkeley -- they've restored free speech. The really astounding thing, and the reason this is a "man bites dog" story and not a "dog bites man" bit of non-news, is that they updated their laws in support of those voicing extreme right-wing positions. Since Berkeley is charmingly known in the Bay Area as "The People's Republic Of Berkeley," this is news indeed.

My position remains unvaried -- the same position mistakenly attributed as a quote to François Marie Arouet (a.k.a. Voltaire): "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." [Voltaire never actually wrote this line, it was falsely attributed to him after his death in a book called "The Friends of Voltaire;" but the line Voltaire actually did write is a pretty good one, too: "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too."] The First Amendment is there for everyone, not just those you agree with. In fact, it is specifically there for those with whom most everybody disagrees -- because such minority opinions are the ones most likely to be attacked by the government.

Of course, I can't really say that Berkeley is some sort of shining example, due to the fact that it took two lawsuits to get the City Council to budge. And it's kind of astonishing that they would have to change laws in order to permit some yahoo from standing on a public sidewalk and displaying his moonbattery for everyone passing by. That sort of thing is exactly what the First Amendment is about, and (last time I checked) Berkeley is still part of the United States of America -- although I'm sure some right-wing radio talk show hosts would disagree with that statement. And finally, the whole thing is really one of those "town/gown" disagreements common in any town with a university in it.

From a recent article in the San Jose Mercury News, we get the facts of the case:

The Berkeley City Council has rewritten its trespassing law to stop UC-Berkeley police from using it to arrest demonstrators on campus.

The move Tuesday night came after two demonstrators who were arrested in separate incidents sued the city, saying its trespassing law was being improperly applied by campus police.

Kortney Blythe of Riverside, a 25-year-old member of Survivors of the Holocaust Revolution who was cited by University of California-Berkeley police in 2007 and who sued the city, found it ironic that she was arrested at the home of the free-speech movement.

"I was just appalled that a place like Berkeley, which is a mecca for free speech, would do that to us," Blythe said.

"Now I'm happy they can't use that ordinance anymore to falsely arrest people and squelch free-speech rights."

Blythe said as an anti-abortion advocate, "part of our job includes defending free speech and everyone, whether they are pro-life or pro-abortion, should be protected."

The other plaintiff, Eric Baxter, is an anti-gay preacher from Oakland who was arrested, handcuffed and cited in 2007 for carrying a sign in front of Sather Gate that said in part "Warning: fornicators, drunkards, thieves, liars, God haters, homosexuals, Jesus' forgiveness is wonderful."

Even though the city won Baxter's challenge in state court and won a first round in federal court in Blythe's suit, it decided to change the law in exchange for a promise from both plaintiffs to drop further challenges.

So, like I said, this is more about a squabble between campus cops and the city government than anything else. And the threat of increasingly-expensive legal proceedings was undoubtedly a factor. But, in the end, Berkeley did the right thing, and stood up for the rights of people to speak their mind on public property, even though those views are indeed only shared by a tiny minority of the Berkeley public at large.

Again, from the article:

[Berkeley Deputy City Attorney Matthew] Orebic said the famously liberal city did not consider the fact that it changed its law to protect people whose views are politically conservative.

"It's a slippery slope and usually against the law to consider the content of the speech you are protecting," Orebic said. "And it would strike at the heart of the First Amendment to do so."

Michael Millen, a Los Gatos civil rights attorney who represented both Baxter and Blythe, said he originally wrote UC-Berkeley Police Chief Victoria Harrison asking her to stop using the trespassing law to arrest people exercising their free speech.

"She writes back and basically says 'we'll use the law any way we want to,' " Millen said. "The city made a stick and used it wisely, but UC-Berkeley used it to whack people.

"If these two (demonstrators) were gays and lesbians agitating to save the whales, you know damn well they wouldn't have been arrested. But someone talks about the gospel of Jesus Christ and they're homophobic and suddenly UC-Berkeley can't wait to arrest them," Millen said.

It's not very often I agree with the hard anti-abortion types, or the anti-gay Christian right on anything. But I have to say, I agree with Millen (and his clients) one hundred percent. Because if government is allowed to limit the rights of some nutjob rightwinger standing on a corner ranting about a cause, then it will have necessarily limited the rights of some nutjob leftwinger to do the same. And it has then limited my rights to stand on the same corner and publicly espouse whatever nutjobbery I feel the need to express.

And that is un-American, and it is wrong. No matter what you are saying... which is kind of the whole point of freedom of speech in the first place.



The A.C.L.U. has posted a monstrous list on their pages with detailed recommendations for what the next president should do to restore our constitutional rights. It is the most comprehensive document of what needs to be fixed at the federal level to clean up Bush's mess that I have ever seen. It is just stunning in both breadth and depth, and I highly encourage you to take the time and at least read the summary at the top. You may not agree with all of their recommendations, but taken as a whole the document is a serious indictment of how far we've been led astray by the Bush years.


-- Chris Weigant


14 Comments on “Free Speech Restored In Berkeley”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    This is why I like this site in general and CW in particular...

    For the most part, political and partisan bigotry takes a back seat to common sense and REAL liberal viewpoints..

    It applies the notion that "the right to swing one's arms ends where someone else's nose begins.."

    Would love to see this particular commentary posted to HuffPo, just to watch the fireworks.. :D

    But I guess CW is still smarting from his "IN DEFENSE OF PALIN" commentary.. :D Ya took a beating on that one, CW... :D


  2. [2] 
    kevinem2 wrote:

    Chris- good article. While I've never seen anyone with a "the end is near" sign up here in Canada, I have been to Hyde Park and seen the street theatre soapboxes. I am impressed by and greatly respect your Constitution.
    On an unrelated note, I had a deeply disturbing thought recently, brought on by the arrest of those aryan nation loons. I know I've read way too many political "thriller" novels over the years, but try this on for size...The repubs "October surprise" is to have a jihadist or McVeigh type assassinate Palin. Sadly, I suspect they would know how to dig up such a "martyr". This would kill two birds with one stone. (I know, horrifically bad pun). It would revive McCain's bullshit "I'd be stronger on terrorism" argument; and cut the decaying moose from his neck. Replacing her with ANYONE who could walk and chew gum at the same time would bring back deserters who'd been dumb enough to leave simply because of her. And I fear there'd be a massive "sympathy" vote from those ignorant enough not to have a term-paper's worth of reasons for voting Obama/Biden.

  3. [3] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I always find it interesting that an entity such as UCB who should be a supporter of free speach and the bill of rights have to be sued before they will do the right thing.

    Good post.


  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    You are indeed right about that. I do not consider defense of the Constitution a "partisan issue" because ALL members of Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court, ALL of them swear an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign OR domestic, and I intend to do what I can to hold them to their oaths.

    And not just the parts they personally agree with, either. The WHOLE thing, dammit!

    As for this site, I continually strive to live up to the site's motto: "reality-based political commentary," and thank you for the kind words. They are rare enough from your direction, but they are all the more valuable because of that.

    As for my "In Defense Of Palin" article, I have to say, while I did take some heat, it was the high-water mark for comments (over 200) on any article I've written for HuffPost, and certainly bred some interesting commentary. Palin speaks in a kind of shorthand style, and I can actually read between the lines of a lot of what she says (although I shudder at that ability in myself), and thought she was getting a raw deal on her "Putin rears his head" quote. What astounded me is that the left ridiculed her and the right defended her, but it seemed that NOBODY tried to figure out what she really MEANT by the comment. Hence my commentary.

    Reality-based. That's a promise, heat or no heat.

    kevinem2 -

    You know, I really really wanted to use Hyde Park as an example in this article, but was afraid nobody would recognize the reference. I should have trusted my audience.

    As for the rest of your post, man, I thought I had one scary-ass Hallowe'en Tale of Terror, but yours absolutely takes the proverbial cake. I'm going to have nightmares now... I sincerely hope you're full of moose poop, so to speak....

    Stan -

    Yeah, but in the end they did the right thing, so I'll cut them some slack this time. What's funny to me is that the far, far right is always astonished when the ACLU stands up for THEIR rights, too, but I see the ACLU as completely non-partisan. They stand up for EVERYone's rights, whether politically correct or not.


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:


    Whatever faults you want to assign the GOP, deserved or not, they are not stupid. Well, not in THIS sense anyways.. The GOP *HAS* to know that ANY attempt or successful attempt on the life of Senator Obama will ultimately paint back to them, even if they truly had nothing to do with it.

    No, a more likely scenario which has ME up at night (figuratively speaking) is that Al Qaeda or Iran-by-Proxy does the dirty deed and plants evidence linking it to the GOP.

    That would be the ultimate terrorist attack, as it would NOT bring this country together, as 9/11 did, but rather it would rip this country apart. We would be so busy fighting Civil War II, that Al Qaeda and terrorist regimes like Iran, Syria and NK would have carte blanche..

    THAT is a more likely scenario and all the scarier because the US would be nothing but a puppet on a string...


    , but I see the ACLU as completely non-partisan. They stand up for EVERYone's rights, whether politically correct or not.

    While you may be right, the cynic part of me thinks that the ACLU only takes "token" Right-Leaning cases, so that they can defend themselves against charges of partisan-ship.

    I would have to see a long LONG list of Right-Leaning cases at least SOMEWHAT comparable to their list of Left-Leaning cases before I would concede the ACLU is TRULY bi-partisan..

    On a completely unrelated note, I had the weirdest dream this morning. It had a Sci-Fi bent (as many of my dreams are wont to have) and took place on a space station that was facing an imminent attack. I was on a starship that was tasked with force-evacuating the station's residents and had to perform some tricky beam-out procedures to beam them out thru the station's shields.

    None of that was the weird part. Pretty run o the mill dream stuff...

    The REALLY weird part??

    The starship I was in command of was the USS Pelosi..

    I shit you not!!

    Anyways, the dream was interrupted by my daughter going into labor, so I can't tell you how it ended..

    But I can promise ya'all thousands of pics of my new grandson in the coming days and weeks. :D


  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:


    Regular Gasoline.. 1.99 per gallon!!!!!


  7. [7] 
    kevinem2 wrote:

    Michale- I think your nightmare scenario is more likely too.

  8. [8] 
    kevinem2 wrote:

    OOPS..Another scarifying my lifetime...JFK, RFK, and MLK dead. George Wallace, Gerald Ford and Reagan...not so dead. (Not to mention John Lennon and Anwar Sadat).

  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    What ya think, Elizabeth???,8599,1854640,00.html


  10. [10] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Congratulations to the happy new grandfather! I hope Mom and baby are doing well!



  11. [11] 
    Michale wrote:

    Thanx CW... Haven't heard anything yet, so I am guessing my daughter hasn't downloaded yet...


  12. [12] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    If I wasn't already so used to that kind of predictable incompetence and ineptitude that pervades the world of journalism I would have been rather upset by such an article so completely removed from the truth of the matter.

    But, I just rolled my eyes and read an electoral chart, or two.

  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    ...oh, and Congrats from me, too!...

    Hey, I thought you promised to post a warning for sensitive viewers when directing me to stuff like that!

  14. [14] 
    Yeah right wrote:

    Seeing as how I am here in China I sometimes have to watch the news via that google website. I totally believe and understand your arguement by god I lived in San Francisco for ten years. While watching the infomercial I ran accross a few remarks claiming that Barack was a racist. I know that he is a public figure so he is due his fare share of slander. I just can't see how one could put the idea together that he would hate his mother, grandmother, grandfather and distant relatives.

    I know this is off topic but I wanted to know if every republican makes more than 200,000 dollars? I know of only one instances where the Republican party stood against the majority. A tax cut for 95% of Americans is substanial. That is an estimated 285,000,000 people or at most a few Americans will pay higher taxes.

    But it is our right, a right that the Chinese do not get to enjoy, the freedom to think and express those thoughts. I may not agree with them but I have to live with them. By the way Chris that guy not only warns gays but people who drink, have sex, etc... How dear he offer Jesus Christ forgiveness? The Bible reads that Christians should offer love without Judgement. Nor can you give your life to Jesus by being guilted. It is kind of like the first Amendment.

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