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December 2, 2002

Free Speech Movement leader warns rights threatened again

By Scott Rappaport

U.S. citizens should be less complacent and trusting of a government that has a long record of abuse of power, warns a founding member of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964 who is now professor and chair of the Women’s Studies Department at UC Santa Cruz.

Bettina Aptheker (at the microphone) shown participating in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, is now professor and chair of the Women’s Studies Department at UCSC. Photo: Courtesy Bettina Aptheker

"Because of the horror of the attacks on the World Trade Center, people think it’s OK to have their Constitutional rights compromised," Bettina Aptheker said. "But I think people really aren’t aware of the extent they’re being compromised."

Aptheker has an essay featured in The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s, a definitive history of the movement just published by the University of California press and edited by UC Berkeley professor Reginald E. Zelnik and New York University professor Robert Cohen.

"The timing of this book is rather appropriate," Aptheker noted. "It’s celebrating and analyzing a movement that supported fundamental Constitutional rights to freedom of speech at a moment when the Bush administration and [Attorney General] John Ashcroft are abrogating those rights."

"It may be helpful in making us more aware of how fragile the Constitution and the Bill of Rights can be, and how easy it is to abuse power," she added.

The volume is a collection of essays and memoirs by veterans of the Free Speech Movement, ranging from leader Mario Savio to UC President Clark Kerr, who was fired in 1967. Recent reports in the media have indicated that the FBI campaigned to oust Kerr from the presidency, even though agents found no evidence that he was disloyal to the government. This prompted a vow by Senator Dianne Feinstein in mid-November to pursue at a future congressional hearing what she termed "significant misues of FBI power" at UC Berkeley.

Aptheker’s essay describes gender politics and the ways in which women’s freedom of speech as a Constitutional right have been impeded over the years. A major leader of the Free Speech Movement who spoke at nearly every rally in the mid-‘60s, she draws a parallel between questionable FBI activity more than three decades ago, and recent legislation just passed by Congress to increase the organization’s powers.

"I think most people don’t understand the USA Patriot Act and don’t even know what’s in it…and they would be appalled if they did," she said. "For example, it allows preventive detention of noncitizens, even if they’re here legally and not connected to terrorism at all. It also allows for wiretapping and searches without traditional warrants--you don’t need a judge."

Aptheker explained that the government is using the same strategy it used in the past, but now is more upfront about it.

"In the ‘50s, the way they got away with abrogating Constitutional rights was to scare people about Communists. Terrible things were done, crimes were committed, and many lives were ruined. Now, what you have is a looming fear of terrorism."

"Groups of people--especially Arab Americans, or people who look like them--are targeted," Aptheker added. "And anybody can be called a terrorist. It’s hard to prove you’re not linked once an accusation has been made. It’s exactly the same strategy that was used with Communism."

Aptheker cautioned that freedom of speech can also exist in theory, but not be practiced in reality.

"I believe there was something approaching 200,000 people protesting against the Bush administration’s proposed war against Iraq on October 26 in Washington, D.C., but it got virtually no media coverage," she said. "Again, this shows that there can be freedom of speech formally, but it doesn’t mean anything because the news is so managed."

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