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The Power of Free Speech in Berkeley

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"I guess they've never heard of free speech," Berkeley City Councilwoman Dona Spring told The Chronicle as she defended the council's 6-3 vote to tell Marine recruiters that they are not welcome in Berkeley -- and that if the Marines stay, they will "do so as uninvited and unwelcome intruders."

The council also voted 8-1 to give the anti-war Code Pink organization a designated parking space directly in front of the U.S. Marine Corps' 64 Shattuck Ave. recruiting office and encouraged Code Pink to "impede" Marine recruitment. It's pretty clear that Spring has heard of free speech, but she has no idea what it is.

It's one thing for Berkeley to pronounce U.S. troops, who put their lives on the line every day to defend America, as unwelcome. That's protected speech -- that signals Berkeley residents' disdain for U.S. troops. It's also the sort of rude, we're-better-than-the-rest-of-America action that invites outsiders to wonder if a city that tries to divorce itself from military recruitment deserves the benefits that the federal government bestows.

Apart from that, the Berkeley vote was the antithesis of free speech. When government officials pass a law to impede the political expression of non-believers, as the Berkeley pols did on Jan. 29, they are wielding the club of government to suppress dissent. They are abusing their authority.

Code Pink does not limit its activities to protesting the war. Code Pink also blocks access to the recruiting office -- members have chained themselves to the door -- which constitutes an attempt to infringe on the rights of those who, despite a barrage of anti-war propaganda, nonetheless want to become Marines.

Code Pink is the anti-war equivalent of anti-abortion protesters barring women from access to abortion clinics -- a crime compounded by the City Council's support of this suppression.

Oh, but it's different, supporters argue, because Berkeley is anti-war. All those high-school lectures about free speech existing to protect unpopular viewpoints evaporate when you're on the popular side. What's the point of having power, after all, if you can't use it as a club to silence those with whom you disagree?

I know many Berkeley residents oppose the war and still are embarrassed that Berzerkely once again has gone over the top. Too bad their reasonable voices are lost in the loud, obnoxious, censorious, lefty cacophony.

"We're not condemning the men and women who serve, we are condemning the U.S. policy that is teaching the Marines and other military people to torture, oust other countries' political leaders and do other evil things," Spring also told The Chronicle. It's typical Berkeley doublespeak: Spring isn't against the troops; she's just accusing them of evil.

When I asked Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain what he would do, if elected, about the Berkeley vote, McCain said he would use the bully pulpit to criticize Berkeley, but: "I think Berkeley is Berkeley, a unique place in America."

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., had a tougher take. "If the city can't show respect for the Marines that have fought, bled and died for their freedom, Berkeley should not be receiving special taxpayer funded handouts," DeMint wrote on his blog. De Mint has found some choice earmarks -- $975,000 for the Cal Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service, $243,000 for the Chez Panisse Foundation -- that, while not city projects, made DeMint's list.

Lest you think the DeMint approach is far-fetched, consider Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's answer to a question posed by NBC's Tim Russert at a debate last month. "There's a federal statute on the books which says that, if a college or university does not provide space for military recruiters or provide a ROTC program for its students, it can lose its federal funding. Will you enforce that statute?" Russert asked. Both Clinton and Obama answered that they would enforce the Solomon Amendment, which first passed in 1994 when Bill Clinton was president.

The idea was: With federal funding comes responsibility. Except the Berkeley City Council feels it owes the American military nothing but disrespect. You see what free speech has become in Berkeley. It's not the free expression of competing ideas. It's free for lefties only -- and for them, speech without consequences.

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