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An open letter to the UC Berkeley community from Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl addressing the protection of free speech and the central mission of the University

01 May 2002

The right to assemble, to demonstrate on behalf of a cause, and to speak freely, subject only to rules that assure that the exercise of these rights does not interfere with the rights of others, are protected by the First Amendment and are rights that the University of California, Berkeley campus has long sought to protect. Indeed, the Dean of Students Office and other units work to facilitate peaceful assemblies and demonstrations.

On April 9, members of the student group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) reserved Sproul Plaza to hold a demonstration; subsequently they and their supporters marched through the campus to Wheeler Hall, where they unlawfully occupied the building and interrupted classes held there.

After refusing repeated requests to leave, 79 protesters, including 41 UC Berkeley students, were cited for trespassing; the UC Berkeley students face student-conduct sanctions. In addition, SJP’s privileges as a registered student group have been temporarily suspended.

Let me explain the reasons for our actions and correct some misunderstandings.

It is important to understand that this is neither an issue of free speech, nor of the right to hold demonstrations on the campus. None of the actions of the University has compromised this principle. The issue is the occupation of an academic building, interfering with the rights of other students to continue their education. While SJP occupied Wheeler Hall, chanting loudly and using bull horns, students in Wheeler Auditorium were trying to take a mid-term examination. Other classes had to be moved. By intentionally interfering with the rights of other students to learn, the group’s actions violated a core principle we must uphold.

The primary responsibility of campus leaders is to assure that the central mission of the University, the teaching of students and their right to secure the education they came here for, can continue whenever possible without interference. The campus has had in the past numerous demonstrations that have broken rules; it has had sit-ins that have disrupted activities of the University. But SJP is the first student organization that has deliberately sought to disrupt the conduct of classes in so substantial a way. Because of SJP’s unexpected occupation of Wheeler Hall last year, we issued clear warnings this year prior to the demonstration scheduled for April 9. We said that willful interference with the educational mission of the University would not be allowed. After demonstrators pushed past police to enter Wheeler, they were warned again that they could face serious sanctions if they continued to interrupt classes. They chose to ignore the warnings.

One of the consequences of the group’s actions is temporarily suspending SJP as a registered student group. Suspending SJP’s ability to reserve facilities or access campus resources after violating the rules has ample precedent. SJP has not been "disbanded" or "banned" as it purports; it is not under any "gag order." It can still call itself Students for Justice in Palestine; it can continue to exercise free speech; it can continue to leaflet; it can continue to demonstrate. Indeed, its demonstration a year ago was held when it was not a registered student organization. What it cannot do is call upon the use of University resources as a student organization until the investigation of its actions has been completed.

Civil disobedience is a part of the American experience and a means of calling attention to the justice of one's cause. That SJP sought amnesty from legal and student conduct sanctions in advance of the arrests indicated that they wanted to avoid all consequences of their unlawful actions.

Most recently, groups that support Palestine and groups that support Israel have each sought space on our campus to express their views. It has been our policy, and continues to be our policy, to provide free and ordered space, neutral for all sides to express their points of view. To fail to enforce rules that were clearly enunciated prior to April 9 for all groups, rules of which students were reminded during the event, would be to apply the rules in an inequitable fashion.

The issues surrounding the conflict in the Middle East as it plays out on the campus are extraordinarily complex and difficult. Whether one agrees or disagrees with our actions, know that we do not undertake these actions lightly. We make these decisions after considerable thought and attention to the basic principles involved in assuring that the University remains a free and ordered space, protecting the rights of everyone.