I’d like to say a little more about what I meant last week when I advocated for free public higher education, and I’d like to say it in the form of a series of annotations to a joke tee shirt.

A few months back I tweeted that education should be “Free as in speech, free as in beer, and free as in Huey.” A couple of days later I expanded on the sentiment:

“Free as in speech. Free as in beer. Free as in Huey. Free as in love. Free as in bird. No MOOCs, is what I’m saying.”

Folks seemed to like that, and when I noodled around with the idea in an airport bar a while later, the idea of turning it into a tee shirt was born. (The shirts are currently on sale as a fundraiser for this site. The sale ends tomorrow, on the evening of Wednesday, December 4.)

Folks are buying and liking the shirts, so that’s cool. But what, exactly, does it mean? Turns out that’s a little complicated. So let’s break it down, clause by clause.

Free as in speech.

The speech/beer/Huey tweet that started this whole thing was a riff on a phrase coined by activist Richard Stallman to describe the Free Software movement: “Think free as in free speech, not free beer.”

What Stallman meant was that free software is a matter of, as he puts it, “liberty, not price.” The goal of the movement is to create software that can be shared, modified, and adapted, rather than just software you don’t have to pay for.

Tee shirt: So when I say that education should be free as in speech and free as in beer, I’m saying I embrace the liberty goals expressed in  Stallman’s slogan while rejecting the idea that access to education should be constrained by your ability to pay.

Free speech is, of course, often put forward as a core value of the educational project — the freedom demanded in the phrase “academic freedom” is freedom of inquiry and expression. That freedom has come increasingly under attack in recent years with the erosion of tenure, professorial independence, and faculty governance, and it’s a freedom that’s worth defending. So: Free as in speech.

And it’s a freedom that’s worth expanding too, particularly with regard to students’ rights. Academic freedom is often framed as a faculty right, but a campus where students do not have the right to speak and write and organize without restraint is also an unfree campus — and that applies in high school and grade school as much as in college.

Free as in beer.

When I wrote about free public higher ed last week, I was speaking primarily in terms of the degree’s actual, material, dollars-and-cents pricetag. Free-as-in-beer public higher ed used to be common in America, and that’s a project worth reviving.

Seen in a certain light, in fact, the idea of paid public higher education is a historical anomaly. Today more than 30% of Americans have a bachelor’s degree. Before World War II fewer than 30% of Americans had high school diplomas. But while free, public, universal high school is a political and cultural given in the United States, not a single state makes even community college accessible under the same conditions as high school.

If a college education is as essential today as a high school education was in 1940 — and it is — then it seems to me that college should reasonably be as free today as high school was then.

So yes, education should be free-as-in-speech and free-as-in-beer. But that’s just the beginning.

Free as in Huey.

Huey Newton was, with Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party in the mid-sixties. In October 1967, at the height of police harassment of the Panthers, two Oakland cops rolled up on Newton and a friend while they were returning from a party. Soon one officer was dead and Newton critically wounded. Testimony about what happened that night was muddled at best, but despite indications that the officer might have been accidentally shot by his partner, Newton was placed on trial for first degree murder.

The subsequent prosecution was a mess, exposing police misconduct, bias in the court system, and strong evidence of a frame-up. After three trials, Newton was vindicated and freed. “Free Huey” was the rallying cry of Newton’s supporters during the 22 months he spent in jail and the two years of legal wrangling that followed.

So what does all that have to do with education? A lot. Free education is liberatory education, education that stands opposed to bigotry and institutional oppression. The campus should be an incubator not just of ideas but of organizing as well. (Not every member of the community will share the same values, of course, but that diversity of opinion is itself a strength of the campus environment. The campus should be an incubator of all kinds of ideas, and all kinds of organizing.)

And as Jacob Remes pointed out on Twitter after I first published this essay earlier today, there’s another way in which education should be made “Free as in Huey” — it needs to be let out of jail. The ever-escalating police presence on campus and in schools needs to be reversed, as does the ever-increasing criminalization of protest and other unsanctioned behavior.

Also: It’s not often remembered today, but Huey Newton and his Panther co-founder Bobby Seale met through the Afro American Association at Merritt College. Merritt is a community college in Oakland, and it was, until 1984, tuition-free. The Black Panthers would likely not have existed if California hadn’t then offered its residents free-as-in-beer public higher education.

Free as in lunch.

At first glance, “free as in lunch” reads as reiteration of “free as in beer,” and it is, up to a point. The idea that public education shouldn’t carry a price tag is important enough to mention twice.

But there’s more to it as well. The phrase “free as in lunch” is also a rebuke to the expression “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” (often acronymized to TANSTAAFL) popularized by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein and conservative economist Milton Friedman in the middle of the 20th century.

The premise of TANSTAAFL is that nothing is truly free. If a bar is offering a free lunch, they’re doing it because somebody’s buying drinks to pay for it. If a service is offered to the public without charge, it’s being underwritten by taxes or some other hidden mechanism. If a system is putting out energy, it has to be getting that energy from somewhere.

All this is true, up to a point. Someone has to pay the professors and the RAs and the janitors even in a free university. Perpetual motion machines are, strictly defined, a hoax. And yet the hard-nosed “realism” of the phrase masks other equally compelling truths — truths about voluntarism, and communal effort, and the social benefits that accrue to all from investment in public goods.

The universe may be a zero-sum game on the level of physics, but the world of human endeavor is not. There is such a thing as a free lunch, and we shouldn’t be afraid to demand one.

Free as in bird.

People request Freebird at concerts because it is awesome and preposterous.

Education should be awesome and preposterous.

Free as in love.

I am, of course, tempted to quote Che Guevara at this point, but instead I’ll reach back further to an earlier, more flamboyant, and ultimately more revolutionary thinker — the 19th century feminist Victoria Woodhull:

“Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere. And I have the further right to demand a free and unrestricted exercise of that right, and it is your duty not only to accord it, but, as a community, to see that I am protected in it.”

I’ve always been enamored of the phrase “free love,” which was first coined a few decades before Woodhull adopted it. Simultaneously archaic and modern, it packs a tremendous amount of meaning into each of its two short words. As articulated by Woodhull here it also has the virtue of audacity, a characteristic that every education activist requires.

Yes, I am a Free Lover. Yes, I am a Free Speecher. Yes, I am a Free Beerer. Yes, I am a Free Hueyer. Yes, I am a Free Luncher. Yes, I am a Free Birder. Yes, I believe in speech and beer and Huey and lunch and bird and love.

Yes, I believe in free education for all.