Thursday, April 14, 2005

Sit-ins and Free Speech: Administrators, Protesters and Journalists all go off track

Last week, I contrasted the Berkeley Free Speech Movement [at the University of California, Berkeley campus in 1964] with the "living wage," sit-ins at Washington University, St. Louis and several other so-called elite universities: Stanford and Georgetown. One major difference implicit in my discussion was that the Berkeley Free Speech Movement was about the right to engage in free speech and advocacy in a prominent part of the campus, but not necessarily to disrupt the on-going mission and activities of the University.

The sit-in at Washington University [and perhaps at the other universities] is not about the right of the students to speak, advocate and have a dialogue about the issues with other students. It is about the “right,” to intimidate university administrators and disrupt the activities of the University until the University gives in to their “demands.”

Moreover, as Washington University junior Josh Chupack, the intern for our show, “Public Affairs,” points out in the blog entry discussing the sit-in, the workers who the protesters are purportedly trying to help, will be net losers if the protesters’ demands are met. If the protesters took and mastered a course in basic price theory, aka microeconomics, they would know this. But, apparently, the 15 or so protestors don’t want to be encumbered with this knowledge. For some, ignorance really is bliss.

Now, for a somewhat different take on the situation, we have Sylvester Brown, Jr., columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who last week lionized these kids from “privileged backgrounds,” for “their efforts to help underpaid workers.” Brown concludes it doesn’t matter whether they are successful, “they tried,” he gushes. Brown compares the living wage protestors to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts and words on behalf of striking sanitation workers the day before Dr. King was assassinated in 1968.

Well, I won’t deny that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke on behalf of striking workers, both on the day before an assassin’s bullet ended his life, and on other occasions as well. But, I will argue that Dr. King stood for so much more. So much more that we all can agree with, without necessarily agreeing with him as to how best to help low income workers, or employees in general.

As almost everyone knows, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for his Dream [shared even then by the populace, at large, I believe]—the dream that someday people will all be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. That, like the right to protest and advocate peacefully, without disrupting the property and on-going business and operations of not-for-profits like the university, is something on which we all can agree.

On the other hand, we can disagree on how best to help low income workers raise their income and standard of living. My ideas and my intern’s, stated so well by him, in my last blog on this matter, are supported by the majority of economic thought and empirical evidence on this matter. In short, you want to help these workers? Get them skills and get them education-- all of which will raise their marginal product, in the language of economists, and thereby raise their wages and standard of living in the free market.

Or, you could buy into the argument of Washington University sophomore and architecture major Irene Compadre, as reported by the Kansas City Star. Compadre, who is participating in the sit-in and the hunger strike, states, "First of all, it's just a basic human cause. These are the workers who clean up after us every day. To know that they don't make enough, that's just not fair."

What would be fairer, Irene? Raising the wages of some workers and terminating others? Raising the wages of all 500 employees initially and subsequently terminating some and hiring fewer new employees in the future with similar skills? Would that be fairer, Irene? Will Irene always be there to sit-in when the employers respond to the distortions to the free market her friends and she introduce by cutting jobs? I don’t think so.

What about Sylvester Brown, Jr.? Does he win the argument by saying that Dr. Martin Luther King supported striking workers so the sit-ins at Washington University must be just? I don’t think so. Dr. Martin Luther King was a great man, but like other great men and women, he was not always right.

And the Washington University administrators, what are they doing? Have they said anything like what I have said? Apparently not. Instead, as reported by the Kansas City Star, they have begun to “negotiate,” offering Monday “to commit $500,000, beginning July 1, toward improving wage-and-benefit packages for the university's contract employees.” And that offer was met by “student organizers [arguing that] their research shows that the university would have to spend about $2.4 million annually to provide improved salary and benefits packages.”

Also, On Monday night, the students reported that the university gave them an 11:30 p.m. deadline to leave the admissions office. A posted letter told them their unauthorized occupation was disrupting the university's work. New letters arrived Tuesday, addressed individually to several protesters.

It was reported that the administration also called for the establishment of a group that could identify resources to assist lower-paid employees. That is not a bad idea and it is consistent with what I have argued.

But then Chancellor Mark Wrighton went off track. The Kansas City Star reports “Wrighton issued a letter to the university community, calling the students' peaceful protest ‘an important part of the democratic process’ with a long, rich history at the school.” Well, I hope not— A group of students taking over the school’s property, disrupting its operations and deciding on their own to become de facto union representatives of 500 employees would be a part of the “democratic process.” Maybe Chancellor Wrighton studied and learned different characteristics of a democracy than I did.

The Kansas City Star reports, “Some said they were concerned school officials were taking conflicting approaches, saying publicly they respected their [the sit-in protesters’ efforts], while making plans to discipline the students for them.” Yes, that would seem to be a good point. Chancellor Wrighton and the University seem to be speaking out of both sides of their mouth, so to speak.

Washington University at St. Louis is notable for hosting three presidential debates since October 1992, including one last fall between President George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. John Kerry.

Perhaps Washington University should have a debate on the issues of a living wage and appropriate student behavior in a university that is supposed to be a marketplace of ideas. Chancellor Wrighton can speak on behalf of the 15 protestors who took over his Admissions office and on behalf of “Wacky Economics.” I will volunteer to speak on behalf of the remainder of the Washington University students—students who I believe came there to attend classes and to learn, and who want to exercise their free speech rights peacefully and non-coercively. It should be a good debate. If it is not disrupted by a sit-in, that is.
Jeff Berkowitz, Host and Producer of Public Affairs and an Executive Recruiter doing Legal Search, can be reached at