Since publishing my biography of Berkeley Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio almost a decade ago, I have often been asked what Savio would say about a host of contemporary issues. Since Savio died in 1996 and there was only one Mario Savio, it usually seemed to me inappropriate to speculate on how he might have viewed events that he unfortunately did not live to see. However, the free-speech controversy that raged this past month over the Berkeley College Republican–sponsored speaking event of the hateful far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, and the violent disruption of his talk last week, raised questions addressed so often and eloquently by Savio that one can see how he would likely have viewed them just by reflecting on his relevant writings and speeches on freedom of speech, minority rights, responsibility, and community.
The first point is so obvious it barely needs saying: Mario Savio supported the right of speakers from all political perspectives to speak on campus. He helped lead the Free Speech Movement in 1964 to secure that right and endured suspension from school and months in jail for the acts of civil disobedience (the mass sit-ins) he led at Cal to win those rights. Rather than ban speakers he disagreed with, Savio debated them, whether they were deans, faculty, the student-body president, or whoever. And this was the spirit not only of Savio but of the FSM, which had an almost Gandhian faith that through open discourse anyone had the potential to be won over to the movement’s free-speech cause, whose justness seemed to them self-evident.
Savio supported freedom of speech not merely on instrumental grounds but as an end in itself, since speech acts were in his eyes the essence of what it meant to be human, and were the key to enlightenment and freedom. Having suffered with a very serious speech defect that blocked his ability to speak fluidly in his childhood and teens, Savio developed a very personal, even spiritual reverence for freedom of speech, and a disdain for attempts to constrict that freedom. Indeed, though an ex-Catholic, Savio used religious imagery to express that reverence. Citing his favorite quote by Diogenes that “the most beautiful thing in the world is the freedom of speech,” Savio explained that “those words are…burned into my soul, because for me free speech was not a tactic, not something to win for political [advantage].… To me freedom of speech is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is.… That’s what marks us off from the stones and the stars. You can speak freely. It is almost impossible for me to describe. It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels. I don’t want to push this beyond where it should be pushed, but I feel it.”
So Savio would almost certainly have disagreed with the faculty and students who urged the administration to ban Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking on campus, and been heartened by the chancellor’s refusal to ban a speaker. But that does not mean Savio would have been dismissive of the concerns the faculty raised in their letter seeking to ban Yiannopoulos on account of Yiannopoulos’s history of crude and cruel baiting of students of color, women, and transgender students in his campus speeches. Savio was a veteran of the civil-rights movement whose battle against racism had led to his arrest in a nonviolent sit-in for fair hiring in San Francisco’s Sheraton Palace Hotel, and then to risk his life in the historic Mississippi Freedom Summer crusade for black voting rights. So it is not surprising that later in Savio’s life when he was on the faculty of Sonoma State University he sought to convince the editors of the student newspaper there that their use of the term “nigger” in the paper was hurtful and irresponsible, which is why it had sparked angry protests by African-American students. Savio did not deny students had the right to print what they chose, but asked that they reach out to their black classmates and reflect on whether in the future they could be more thoughtful about the impact their words had on the campus community.