The University of California at Berkeley has been ground zero for some of our most heated fights over free speech. Conservative speakers have been blocked or cancelled. A Berkeley physicist resigned after faculty and students opposed a presentation by a UChicago physicist due to his questioning the impact of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs. Faculty and students denounced a history professor who anonymously called for greater academic freedom protections. Now, conservatives are objecting after the discovery of a speech by Berkeley Professor Zeus Leonardo in which he discussed the need “to abolish whiteness.” As will come as little surprise to regulars on the blog, I oppose calls for Leonardo to be fired and believe that this is protected under principles of free speech and academic freedom. Yet, it is the response of the Berkeley faculty and students that is most notable.
Professor Leonardo teaches at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. The 42-second clip is part of a talk given by Leonardo at the Centre for Culture, Identity and Education at the University of British Columbia in September 2007 and titled “Teaching Whiteness in a Multicultural Context and Color-blind Era.” It has been featured on sites like The College Fix. In the video, Leonardo declared:
“That’s why I am coming up with this recent understanding that to abolish whiteness is to abolish white people. That’s very uncomfortable perhaps, but it asks about our definitions of what race is and what racial justice might mean.”
Conservative sites have previously criticized Leonardo for inflammatory statements, including a guest lecture at George Washington University where I teach. At GWU, Leonardo argued that children are born “human” and then are “bullied” into becoming white: “They were born human. Little by little, they have to be abused into becoming white humans. This abuse is sometimes physical … such as being bullied into whiteness. But also it’s psychological and cultural.”
It seems clear that if a professor made such statements about minorities, there would be an immediate suspension and then termination at schools like Berkeley. However, these controversies have been largely met by silence from the same faculty and students, who campaigned to cancel or fire other academics.
For free speech advocates, the solution is simple. It is all free speech.
I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments “detonating white people,” denouncing police, calling for Republicans to suffer, strangling police officers, celebrating the death of conservatives, calling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other outrageous statements. I also defended the free speech rights of University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence.
Even when faculty engage in hateful acts on campus, however, there is a notable difference in how universities respond depending on the viewpoint. At the University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display. In the meantime, academics and deans have said that there is no free speech protection for offensive or “disingenuous” speech. CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,” Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned after she made a single analogy to acting like a “slaveholder” as a self-criticism for failing to achieve equity and reparations for black faculty and students). We also previously discussed the case of Fresno State University Public Health Professor Dr. Gregory Thatcher who recruited students to destroy pro-life messages written on the sidewalks and wrongly told the pro-life students that they had no free speech rights in the matter.
When these controversies arose, faculty rallied behind the free speech rights of the professors. That support was far more muted or absent when conservative faculty have found themselves at the center of controversies. The recent suspension of Ilya Shapiro is a good example. Other faculty have had to go to court to defend their free speech rights.
Another example was the campaign to force a criminology professor named Mike Adams off the faculty of the University of North Carolina (Wilmington). Adams was a conservative faculty member with controversial writings who had to go to court to stop prior efforts to remove him. He then tweeted a condemnation of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper for his pandemic rules, tweeting that he had dined with six men at a six-seat table and “felt like a free man who was not living in the slave state of North Carolina” before adding: “Massa Cooper, let my people go.” It was a stupid and offensive tweet. However, we have seen extreme comments on the left — including calls to gas or kill or torture conservatives — be tolerated or even celebrated at universities.
Celebrities, faculty and students demanded that Adams be fired. After weeks of public pummeling, Adams relented and took a settlement to resign. He then killed himself a few days before his final day as a professor.
The problem is that free speech is under attack from the left with the support of many liberal faculty members and administrators. There is a new orthodoxy that has taken hold at our schools. It is now common to openly engage in content discrimination and for students, including writers at Berkeley, to call for “violent resistance” and speech controls.
The Leonardo controversy highlights the bias shown by universities like Berkeley in responding to controversial speech. The tolerance shown to Leonardo’s exercise of free speech is in striking contrast to the intolerance shown to academics espousing opposing views on race or other issues.
Here is the entire video: