Do Nazis have free speech rights? Campus panel digs in

UC Berkeley sophomore Manu Meel (middle right) speaks during a forum on Free Speech at the BAMPFA. The other panelists included, from left: Ira Glasser, the former head of the ACLU; Charlene Stern, director of "Near Normal Man;" Ben Stern, an activist, educator and Holocaust survivor; moderator Edward Wasserman, dean of Berkeley's journalism school; Meel; Luis Tenorio, a sociology Ph.D candidate and director of Queer and Trans Advocacy Project at UC Berkeley; and Simone Dill, a senior film and media studies major and president of the Cal Black Student Union. (UC Berkeley photo by Jeremy Snowden)

UC Berkeley sophomore Manu Meel (middle right) speaks during a forum on Free Speech at the BAMPFA. The other panelists included, from left: Ira Glasser, the former head of the ACLU; Charlene Stern, director of “Near Normal Man;” Ben Stern, an activist and Holocaust survivor; moderator Edward Wasserman, dean of Berkeley’s journalism school; Luis Tenorio, a sociology Ph.D candidate; and Simone Dill, a senior film and media studies major. (UC Berkeley photo by Jeremy Snowden)

What are the limits of free speech? Should Nazis in Illinois be able to demonstrate in a town filled with Holocaust survivors? Should alt-right speakers be allowed to intimidate and harass undocumented or transgender students on UC Berkeley’s campus? Who gets to decide?

These questions — and others — were considered by a generation-spanning panel of three UC Berkeley students, the former head of the ACLU, the dean of Berkeley’s journalism school and a Holocaust survivor and his daughter on Thursday.

The group spoke at BAMPFA after a screening of Near Normal Man, a short documentary about 95-year-old Berkeley resident Ben Stern. Stern, who is Jewish and sat on the panel, survived the Nazi death camps during the Holocaust only to face down a group of neo-Nazis who wanted to demonstrate in his adopted home town of Skokie, Illinois, in the mid-1970s.

Skokie sued the National Socialist Party of America, hoping to block members from gathering in its village, which at the time had the highest per capita concentration of Jewish people in the U.S. The ACLU stirred bitter controversy by defending the neo-Nazis. The Supreme Court agreed with the ACLU, run at the time by Ira Glasser, another panelist, that the group had a First-Amendment-protected right to gather.

The 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court in 1977 is often cited as a landmark First Amendment precedent — even Nazis have First Amendment rights. It was the reason the panel came together during a year when UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ hopes to engage in searching debate about free speech four decades later.

“Ben Stern’s remarkable and horrific story makes clear that the power of speech is not an abstract concept,” Christ said during opening remarks. “There are serious consequences that flow from a country’s approach to free speech.”

Much of the panel discussion was dominated by debate over those approaches: whether the government can limit the rights of someone if they spread hateful, pro-violence messages, or if any limits to speech are a slippery slope to censorship.

The wide-ranging, occasionally muddled conversation found few meaningful answers to the question.

“If it was so easy to solve, it would have been solved already,” said panelist Luis Tenorio, a sociology graduate student who directs of the Queer and Trans Advocacy Project at Berkeley. “It is something that requires a lot more discussion, a lot more thought, maybe involving some sort of risk, but it is not something you should drive away from.”

Sophomore Manu Meel, executive vice president of external affairs at BridgeUSA, a nonpartisan political discussion group on campus, agreed that the panel was a productive, but incremental, discussion of free speech.

“I thought it was a really good, excellent way (to talk about it), even if there were open-ended questions left,” the political science major said. “This shows how differences should be played out, and how we can constructively disagree on important issues.”

Tenorio said he hoped the audience would better appreciate the nuances of free expression after the conversation.

“It is that thought process that I am positive about,” Tenorio said. “I understand not everyone will be inspired, not everyone will have these conversations. For me the one, two or 10 people who are having these moments interrogating or thinking about it, the better.”

Contact Will Kane at willkane@berkeley.edu