The State of Free Speech at Berkeley

October 11th, 2004

The richest man on Earth visited Berkeley Friday October 1 — on the 40th anniversary of the free speech movement’s birth here on campus.

Bill Gates’ reception was a stark reminder of how the concept of free speech here has changed since 1964, when thousands of students and sympathizers revolted against attacks on their First Amendment rights, forcing the university administration to permit free speech on campus. This Free Speech Movement spread quickly to universities around the world. The movement played a pivotal role in the fight for civil rights and in the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

Nowadays Berkeley is a very different place. Walk around town and you’ll see some street merchants and homeless people and older residents making their voices heard with placards and posters and t-shirts and an occasional megaphone. Not so with the students. Most of the students are silent, unquestioning, complacent consumers.

On campus, huge corporations enjoy much more free speech than the students. Some administrators nurture and enforce this state of affairs.

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Consider Bill Gates’ recent visit. During the question and answer session at the end of Gates’ speech, most students who asked questions carefully avoided all the obvious but uncomfortable issues regarding Gates and Microsoft: the firm’s extremely anticompetitive business practices, the glaring security holes that plague Microsoft software, and so on.

The questions that were asked could have been written for a Microsoft television commercial — with one exception.

A student named Ka-Ping Yee broke from the flock to attempt real dialogue.

Yee remembered what happened at his alma mater, the University of Waterloo, when it accepted a $2 million “gift” from Microsoft. Long sticky strings were attached to this “gift.” The school sacrificed its integrity, downgraded the value of its diplomas and transformed itself into a Microsoft marketing machine, for only $2 million. University of Waterloo changed its curriculum to serve Microsoft at students’ expense. It stopped teaching engineering students the industry-standard C++ programming language and forced them to learn Microsoft’s new, proprietary C# language instead.

Yee is a Berkeley student now. After the sugar-coated lecture, Yee began to ask Gates real questions about Microsoft’s darker business practices. His questions were thoughful and civil and well-phrased. But in his questions, Yee didn’t blindly bow to Gates and his money, as did the other students, and as did A. Richard Newton, Dean of Berkeley’s College of Engineering.

Yee didn’t pander to Gates. So the Dean cut him off.


Dean Newton simply talked over Yee, interrupting his questions. Twice. (For a word-for-word account of this episode, see the section beginning “You mentioned earlier,” in Microsoft’s transcript of the event.)

(By the way, Ka-Ping Yee followed this up with another act of bravery — on his weblog, he called out the damaging and factually incorrect statement that Gates made about open-source software licensing. Open-source licensing forms one of the most potent barriers to Microsoft power. But Yee wasn’t given the chance to challenge Gates’ claim during the question and answer session.)

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But let’s not single out Newton and Microsoft. What other huge corporations enjoy more freedom of speech at Berkeley than the students? Here are just a few:

  • CNN has colonized the Free Speech Movement Cafe. A oversized television hangs prominently on the wall, accompanied by a sign warning students that the channel cannot be changed and the volume cannot be adjusted. The box spews forth CNN’s messages all day every day.

    • MTV’s college-focused advertisers now pervade the main student gym. Unless they wear blindfolds, most students using the cardio equipment in the Recreational Sports Facility are assaulted by commercials beamed at them from dozens of “MTVU” screens.
    • The biannual onslaught of smarmy big-corporate sales and marketing kiosks used to disappear from campus after the first couple of weeks of each semester. This semester a huge portion of the “public” plaza next to the student union was occupied by a large tent devoted to sales of a notorious brand of astonishingly overpriced sneakers, and this continued a full month into the school year. Yesterday’s student tables about civil rights and pacificism are being replaced by kiosks where sleazy corporatations peddle credit cards and energy drinks.
    • Student organizations are prohibited from selling or buying textbooks as you or I would — by patronizing competitive third-party book retailers. Every organization on campus is forced to buy through eFollett. By selling out students’ freedom of choice to this corporate monster, university administrators have removed competition from textbook sales on campus. The result: students face absurdly high prices, horrendous Web interfaces, and obnoxious eFollett billboards on campus.
    • UPDATE 10/21/03: The Berkeley Art Museum is hosting an art contest and exhibition called PowerPoint to the People. Only entries built using Microsoft’s expensive PowerPoint products will be allowed to compete.
    – – –

    Don’t get me wrong; I know there’s an important place for corporations in society, and even in public universities.

    But things have fallen far out of balance.

    Plenty of stories last week in the Berkeley press touched on the Free Speech Movement anniversary. But hardly any mention was made of the megacorporate shadow on freedom of speech. Hardly a word was heard about the mushrooming corporate entanglements with public education.

    Many consider Berkeley one of the top public universities on the planet, and our lead is followed by other institutions. The precedents we set ripple throughout society. Students and faculty should remember Berkeley’s reputation for pointing out and fighting social injustices. Let’s not remain silent in the face of outrageous corporate encroachments.

  • 7 Responses to “The State of Free Speech at Berkeley”

    1. comment number 1 by: sean


      Thanks, but you’re wrong about the world’s richest man. The rumor about the IKEA founder is false; it was apparently started by Swedish TV and magazine reporters who failed to do their homework and estimated the value of the entire IKEA company, and confused that figure with the value of the IKEA founder’s personal fortune. Details here.

    2. comment number 2 by: dan luke

      don’t be such a hypocrite. I was a little strident once, and you berated me for using a tone which you found offensive. Would you ever sanction a stong opinion, or a strong passion? Aren’t you far too sophisticated anyway? The reason no one does anything is for fear they will be labled a jerk, or some kind of crazy. Being radical aint cool. The only thing that is cool is being cool which usually boils down to rank conformity of some kind–hello ipod folks. i live in Portland, OR, after San Fran America’s most liberal city. Guess how many anti-war demonstrations we’ve had? Very, very few. When they happen, they attract what are thought of as the lunatic fringe. Big whoop. I’ve attended meetup’s, and gatherings organized by moveon. Did they ever lead to further organization? No. They just fizzled out! Sean, I read your site, and can tell your another garden-variey Berkley smart person, but what the fuck have you done??? What do you think you could do even if you wanted to make a real differnce? Just remember, the fate of the world rests largely in the hands of smart people like yourself. What are you doing?

    3. comment number 3 by: sean


      I don’t grok everything you’re saying there, and I certainly don’t remember meeting you, much less being offended by you..

      But you’re right, I need to do much more. I appreciate your sentiment. Fight on.

    4. comment number 4 by: IE Team

      Explorer will always be the best browser. Don”t you dare install Firefox or we will sue you.

      IE Team

    5. comment number 5 by: Erich Schubert

      Why not call people to partiticipate in the PowerPoint Contest, but make their entries with OpenOffice. Then afterwards, maybe the winner contributions are even NOT made with Microsoft.

      That could seriously harm PowerPoint – if you can do better things by using other software.

    6. comment number 6 by: Erich Schubert

      Oh, and btw:

      NY Times says that PowerPoint presentations (apart from making you dumb) may be involved in the Columbia accident:

    7. comment number 7 by: Emanuel Zorg

      The comment above that begins with the words “Only Gatesy” strikes me as deeply ignorant about something more important than who is richest. “Only Gatesy” (well, okay Simon Cox, but I prefer to call him “Only Gatesy”) says that the cafe should be sponsored by two diametrically opposed groups for “balance,” but balance means nothing. Consider.

      One of my profs was a rebelling student in the sixties and marched on Washington with (I think) over a hundred thousand people. He said that he was shocked when he found that TV coverage showed a shot of the crowd followed by a shot of a Klansman at a tiny rival rally, for “balance.” When he recounted this incident to our class, he recommended a book (title long forgotten) about how TV can level the playing field between 150 Klansmen and 150,000 civil rights protesters.

      Similarly, if you watch Tucker “Got My Ass Reamed by Jon Stewart” Carlson and his liberal “foe” balancing each other, you can see serious issues reduced to a “Got You Last” Contest.

      There are all kinds of venues offering balance. Balance only helps big media. What helps students on campus is the opportunity to construct their own representations of experience, not Clinique’s nor MTV’s nor Micro$oft’s.