The Farrakhan Controversy: Why is UC Berkeley Suppressing Free Speech?

"For the last 12 or 15 years, those powerful forces that wish to control the way young Black college students think have not wanted me on college campuses. The sad thing about that is “education” should prepare you to listen to anyone, and judge them for yourself as to whether they are worthy to be listened to. But no college campus should be afraid to bring someone in that is controversial: “contra” means “against,” and “verse” means “your version of the truth.”

I was present at Prairie View A&M University on the night of November 9, 2011 when the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan said these above words at the beginning of his message delivered to thousands of students. That was his first time on the campus in 23 years.

Minister Farrakhan commanded the audience, as he always does, and many students personally told me “he changed my life for the better.” I was happy to see this HBCU take a stand at the risk of being ridiculed by opposition.

PVAMU has come a long way. When I attended, the then university president opposed us inviting not only Minister Farrakhan to the school, but anyone who presented anything deemed too controversial. Simply put, they didn’t want us bringing people who would liberate the minds of Black students. At a Black college?

Interestingly, they allowed former Pres. George W. Bush to deliver a commencement speech in 2001, on the heels of a, ahem, controversial 2000 presidential election. His presence at PVAMU ignited a huge protest outside the main arena because Secret Service, in the name of “security”, only allowed a certain amount of people in to see their children walk across the stage. Parents started banging on the doors “Bush Go Home!”

What happened when Minister Farrakhan came last year? Students lined the sidewalk around the block for their opportunity to hear him. We fit as many as we could in the main venue and then others watched on a big screen in the auditorium across the street. It was such an unforgettable experience that according to PVAMU officials and students, it’s still one of the most talked about events on the yard.

The school offered him a $5,000 honorarium to appear, however, he turned it down and asked them to give it away as a scholarship. It was eventually split between four students who applied and received the funds.

The latest drama is building in California.

Minister Farrakhan, along with several other speakers, has been invited by the UC Berkeley Black Student Union to keynote the Afrikan Black Coalition Conference taking place this weekend. According to organizers, nearly 700 Black students from across the state will be engaging one another in sessions covering topics such as self-mastery, self-determination, interpersonal relationships, community action, and more.

Minister Farrakhan
Well, based upon what I have read, Jewish students and some Berkeley officials are offended that Minister Farrakhan will be one of the featured speakers. This school is supposedly where the Free Speech Movement was born, yet it may be gaining a reputation for attempting to abort and suppress free speech.

“Organized by the UC Berkeley Black Student Union, an ASUC sponsored group, Farrakhan’s visit directly attacks Jewish students on this campus. Farrakhan’s hatred cannot be tolerated. It is unfathomable that the BSU has no issue in inviting such an abjectly offensive speaker to campus,” said Jacob Lewis in a blog post. He’s a part of the Jewish student group Tikvah at UC Berkeley. They even started an online petition.

In an op-ed for The Daily Californian, four representatives of The Associated Students of the University of California wrote “As the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, UC Berkeley continues to be an environment in which its faculty and students are constantly challenged by and engaged with new ideas. Simply put, we value the right to free speech. At the same time, UC Berkeley is an institution committed to equity and inclusion and ensuring that each individual feels comfortable on his or her own campus. For this reason, even if Farrakhan does not echo his previous intolerant statements, his presence alone speaks volumes. By granting him an audience, we are condoning his previous actions, and in so doing, damaging the delicate campus climate we strive to protect.”

How can you “value” and oppose free speech at the same time?

Salih Muhammad, who serves as president of the hosting UC Berkeley Black Student Union, wrote an op-ed in response to the negativity.

“Freedom of speech does not imply that anyone completely agrees with what the speaker says; however, it does dictate the right for one to speak. The history of the Free Speech Movement seems to have been lost,” he wrote. “Who determines which speakers are “politically correct” enough to speak at our “diverse” campus? History tells us that there has always been a character assassination of high profile black leadership, ranging from Frederick Douglass to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to President Barack Obama. So why is it unacceptable for one of the most successful black leaders to be invited to speak to young black students from across the state of California?”

ABC Conference Logo
He further wrote, “As human beings, we possess the right to self-determination — the right to determine our own destiny. Why is it that our ability to have self-determination is being challenged? It is offensive that, as black students, we are viewed as not having the intellectual capacity to choose a speaker who addresses our needs.”

Why are so many colleges afraid of Farrakhan? Why has he been banned due to unwritten laws applied by campus officials under the influence of outside forces? 

I applaud the Black Student Union for standing their ground against this fierce, yet flawed, opposition. It is outright offensive for these Jewish students to try and dictate who these Black students can and cannot listen to. Is this 1812 or 2012?

Minister Farrakhan’s presence is needed on the college campuses more now than ever.

Black students should not fear bringing him because you have the right and you deserve to hear him for yourself beyond what his enemies and mainstream media has said about him.

The students that hear him will never be the same.

(Brother Jesse Muhammad is staff writer for The Final Call Newspaper and an award-winning blogger. Follow him on Twitter @BrotherJesse)