Farrakhans Berkeley talk reignites free speech debate

On March 10, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan addressed the Afrikan Black Coalition Conference at U.C. Berkeley, sending student groups and Jewish organizations into heated debate over the limits of free speech.

While few critics contested the right of conference organizers, the school’s Black Student Union, to invite Farrakhan, many condemned the choice, and bemoaned the bully pulpit given the rabble-rousing Farrakhan to spread his message of hate.

The appearance in a packed 700-seat auditorium, billed as a speech about black empowerment, contained anti-Semitic and hate speech, according to students who spoke to the Daily Californian, the campus’ student newspaper. A petition signed by more than 350 people was circulated after the speech by Jewish student leaders, opposing Farrakhan’s speech and character, but not the BSU’s right to bring him to the school, according to that publication.

Louis Farrakhan

“Free speech comes with great responsibility,” said Adam Naftalin-Kelman, the executive director of Hillel at U.C. Berkeley. “Every group has the right to bring who they want, but … we have to understand where the fine line is. We have to be careful about giving a platform to people who spread hate.” Allowing Farrakhan such a platform “tarnishes the reputation of the university,” he said, and hurt the conference, which he said was a “wonderful” annual event for the school’s African American community.

“It made this conference a lightning rod, and that detracted from it,” he said.

Nancy Appel, director of the ADL for the San Francisco region, also condemned Farrakhan’s appearance, while upholding the group’s right to invite the fiery minister.

“For over thirty years, Louis Farrakhan has been notorious as a purveyor of hate against Jews, whites, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, among others,” Appel said in a press release. “It is unconscionable for the organizers of the ABC Conference to have honored him with this invitation to address their annual gathering. Granting Farrakhan this privilege is a slap in the face to all members of the diverse U.C. Berkeley community who strive to make their campus as inclusive and welcoming as possible for everyone.”

The statement also called on campus administrators to unequivocally condemn Farrakhan’s “hate mongering.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, there were no protesters outside Wheeler Auditorium during Farrakhan’s speech, and only one protester afterward, student senator Noah Ickowitz.

Ickowitz told the Chronicle that Farrakhan had every right to appear on campus, and that he, in turn, had a right to protest a speech he saw as advocating black empowerment at the expense of other groups.

The Chronicle also reported that in his speech, Farrakhan warned against a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran, and that at one point he adopted a fake Asian accent and spoke in gibberish after making a reference to Chinese protesters.

University of California President Mark Yudof weighed in on Farrakhan’s appearance.

“Louis Farrakhan is a provocative, divisive figure with a long history of racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic speech,” Yudof said following the speech. “It was distressing in the extreme that a student organization invited him to speak on the U.C. Berkeley campus.”

Nevertheless, Yudof also upheld the students’ right to invite him. “As I have said before, we cannot, as a society or as a university community, be provoked by hurtful speech to retreat from the cherished value of free speech,” he said.

The ADL urged U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau to follow in Yudof’s footsteps in issuing a call to “condemn merchants of hatred when they come into our community.”

Naftalin-Kelman said he ultimately agreed with Yudof that “the best counter to hate speech is really good speech,” adding that the university should now make a concerted effort to invite speakers with positive messages to campus, in order to counter the ill will generated by Farrakhan’s appearance.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.