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At what price “free speech”?

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on November 18, 2009 4 Comments

Reading a provocative post entitled The Abortion Amendment by fellow FITizen Prof. Robin Lakoff on the newly started Berkeley Blog, I was reminded of an event that rattled me a few weeks ago on campus. Berkeley Students for Life (BSL) apparently invited the little knownThe Center for Bio-Ethical Reform” to tour our campus, and they put up giant graphic blown up posters in an installation right next to the fountain on Sproul Plaza. The installations stayed up for two days, October 26 and 27. [Click here for video.] Here’s a small gallery of some pictures I took:

The pictures-especially given their prominence on the historic Sproul Plaza-ruffled more than a few feathers, particularly those of pro-choice groups on campus. Jonathan Poullard (Dean of Students) when asked about it, was quoted as saying that “campus authorities only require that a demonstration be held within the confines of state and federal law as well as be sponsored by a campus-affiliated group…We don’t regulate content.” Some students objected to what they viewed as misuse of photos of Mario Savio and Barack Obama, but the president of BSL defended them, saying, as the Daily Cal reported, that interpretations would lie “in the eye of the beholder.”

I believe strongly that one of Berkeley’s defining qualities is that we as a community pride ourselves on our historical commitment to free speech. But being forced to walk past the smiling faces of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform activists doing media interviews flanked by those graphic pictures (which primarily showed what looked like late-term fetuses), and the violence narrated by analogizing  abortion with genocide, I felt unnerved. As a decidedly pro-choice woman, I came away feeling violated, violated in a way I wouldn’t expect to be on a-my-college campus. Being pro-choice is not simply an aspect of my political beliefs or a matter of an ideological bent; it is also deeply woven into the texture of my sense of who I am, and goes at the heart of what rights I think I have over my body, and what rights I think women should have over their bodies. I cannot help but ask: at what point does free speech become hate speech?

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4 Responses to “At what price “free speech”?”

  1. Adam on: 19 November 2009 at 12:36 am

    What did you make of the juxtaposition of the abortion shots and the images of Obama? What do you think they were trying to do with the images of Obama? I didn’t get it but found it really disturbing. I mean, not as disturbing of the graphic images themselves, but for me there was something very sinister in the strange combination of images.

  2. Jane on: 19 November 2009 at 8:25 am

    Rage. That’s what I felt passing by that ugly, ignorant, hateful performance. Having grown up near the New Mexico/Mexico border, it was not unusual for young woman to go to Juarez for an abortion. It was a given that a couple of them would die. When I was in tenth grade my best friend hemorrhaged to death on a Greyhound bus trying to get home after having an abortion.

    Are these really the stories we want as part of the fabric of our lives, our living breathing adult woman lives? I hope not. But I seriously doubt that that group of “pro-life-as-long-as-it-is-still-in-the-womb” cares. Or maybe they are truly ignorant. That’s the best thing I can think of people who can stand beneath gigantic images like that and shriek their “values” and “religious beliefs” at passersby.

  3. Jonathan on: 19 November 2009 at 9:34 am

    Free speech isn’t just for those who agree with you, obviously. Part of living in a pluralistic society means you’re gonna see and hear things you don’t want to hear or see.

    So people want to show pictures of dead babies? Let them. They have a point they want to make, no matter how true or misconstrued it might be. But as outrageous the pictures might be, they are not hate speech. They might be hate speech to you because you feel so strongly about the issue, but to a detached observer, it’s not. Also, no one is “forced” to walk through Sproul Hall if they don’t want to.

    I disagree with the concept of hate speech anyway, but hate speech is content that attacks of disparages a person based on their gender, social or ethnic group. The dead babies do neither.

  4. Nora on: 20 November 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Jane,
    Perhaps let’s make posters of all the beautiful young women who died to receive abortions, including your friend, with pictures of their grave sites as well. I wonder what would happen if these wanks put their efforts into working in places where actually living babies are routinely subjected to impoverished conditions and mothers are left to fend for themselves. Apparently, it’s only the mangled babies they’re interested in though.

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