Conservative commentator Ann Coulter said Wednesday that her planned speech at the University of California at Berkeley this week was canceled amid mounting concerns about potentially violent protests.
The university sent a message to the campus community Wednesday in the midst of uncertainty over whether, or when, Coulter might come to campus. After the university originally canceled her speech for Thursday and instead invited her to speak there next week, Coulter had vowed to speak anyway; with the university not offering a venue, campus Republican groups had been discussing her possibly appearing on a public plaza, where security would have been challenging.
Though no arrangements could be worked out, Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks emphasized that the university has two nonnegotiable commitments, to free speech and to campus safety.
“This is a University, not a battlefield,” Dirks told the university community. “We must make every effort to hold events at a time and location that maximizes the chances that First Amendment rights can be successfully exercised and that community members can be protected. While our commitment to freedom of speech and expression remains absolute, we have an obligation to heed our police department’s assessment of how best to hold safe and successful events.”
Even with Coulter’s appearance now canceled, campus police said many protesters and activists have still vowed to converge on Berkeley, which authorities fear could spark violence.
Capt. Alex Yao, from the university’s campus police, said, “Based on intel, we believe protesters are still going to come here. There are those individuals and groups who have said they’re going to come here to commit violence.” Yao pointed to numerous public postings online and said his department has also received calls and intelligence gathered from law enforcement partners in the region.
Some groups have said they plan to show up in the morning, Yao said, while others have said they will show up in the afternoon, so police are preparing for possible violence throughout the day. University spokesman Dan Mogulof said the cost of security Thursday will easily figure in the “tens of thousand of dollars.”
Before Coulter’s cancellation, the university was girding for potentially violent protests on campus on Thursday, when she was expected to give a speech, potentially on Sproul Plaza, a sprawling open area known for gatherings and demonstrations.
“We want to be the new free speech movement on campus,” Troy Worden, president of the Berkeley College Republicans, said Wednesday. “The longer goal is institutional reform.”
But Pranav Jandhyala, the founder of the politically moderate Bridges USA, the other student group that invited Coulter to campus, said Wednesday that their goals had been co-opted by outsiders. “People are using our campus community as a battleground,” he said. “This event wasn’t supposed to be about free speech.”
He said he got a concussion during the riots over another controversial speaker in February.
Harmeet Dhillon, the lawyer representing the Berkeley College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation, a national group fighting First Amendment issues on many campuses, said Coulter is entitled to her opinion about what could or should have been done in court, “but it was UC-Berkeley that canceled the speech.”
On Wednesday, Spencer Brown, a spokesman for the Young America’s Foundation, wrote in an email: “We did not capitulate to the Left or abandon Coulter. UC-Berkeley blocked every effort to provide a venue required to sponsor an educational event with Berkeley students. At no time was there ever a space or lecture time confirmed for Ann to speak.”
He wrote that the event was intended to be a lecture, not a stroll to Sproul Plaza, and the university had six weeks to lock in a room but did not do so. “If we had a hall, or even a room, we would have proceeded.”
” … We didn’t run from anything. We stepped up and sued Berkeley and we paid for Ann to give a lecture, not just give a brief speech among violent protesters.”
He said the group would move ahead with the lawsuit to protect students’ and conservative speakers’ First Amendment rights. “Conservatives shouldn’t be relegated to speaking outside under the threat of violence when numerous liberal speakers are given venues at any time they wish.”
On Wednesday, former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos said he is planning to hold a week-long series of rallies and events at UC-Berkeley in fall to protest the university’s recent actions.
Berkeley has been at the center of a bitter fight over free speech, pitting protesters from the far-left and the far-right galvanized by President Trump’s election in November. Some protesters are demanding that controversial speakers not be given a platform, while others insist that blocking them violates their right to free speech. While confrontations over speakers are nothing new on college campuses, the anger has spun into riots in some places, leaving universities and police trying to balance safety and First Amendment rights.
Over the past two days and even the last hours before Coulter canceled her planned appearance, groups from both ends of the political spectrum appeared to be gearing up for a massive confrontation on campus. Anarchists and antifascists planned protests.
So did other groups: “We have amassed an army and are ready to protect her,” said Gavin McInnes, founder of a conservative group called Proud Boys, which he has described as a pro-Western fraternity for men who “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.”
Oath Keepers, a national militia group made up of former military and law enforcement officers, posted a call-out for members to converge on Berkeley for a “new mission” to protect Coulter and her speech.
“We now have a green light on this operation and we call on you to step up with us and help us once again defend free speech,” wrote the founder Steward Rhodes in a Facebook post on Wednesday. The group had turned up at a rally that grew violent earlier this month at a public park in Berkeley, as the conservatives brawled with anarchists and antifascists trying to shut the event down.
Rhodes’s message to Oath Keepers members provided maps, logistics, and orders to bring as much gear as possible in anticipation of violence: helmets, mask and goggles in case of tear gas, fire-resistant gloves, body armor and steel-toe boots if possible.
Kyle Chapman — a San Francisco Bay-area man who became a hero to many conservatives after a video went viral of him at a Berkeley rally breaking a wooden sign post over the head of a protester — also announced in recent days that he was forming a group called Alt-Knights to “defend our right wing brethren when police and government fail to do so. This organization is for those that possess the Warrior Spirit. The weak or timid need not apply.”
Three times this year, protesters wearing masks have turned demonstrations about speech into dangerous mob confrontations at Berkeley, with injuries, fires and massive property damage.
In February, swarms of Black Bloc protesters bent on disruption swept into the crowd of students demonstrating against Yiannopoulos, then a writer for Breitbart, and within minutes broke windows and set fire to a propane tank. University officials, acting on police advice, canceled his speech because they did not feel they could ensure his or the community’s safety.
At Berkeley, the site of countless protests and the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, the level of extremism was unprecedented. But canceling Yiannopoulos’s speech angered many who believe conservative opinions are being smothered at the nation’s college campuses.
In a tweet, Trump raised the threat of pulling federal funding from the university.
Following the initial Coulter speech cancellation, student groups on Monday filed a lawsuit against university officials, contending that the school was stifling free speech, particularly for conservative students whose views are rejected by many on the liberal campus.
“It is deeply depressing and contrary to our nation’s best traditions to see violence used to silence speech with which some, or even many, may disagree,” said Will Creeley, senior vice president for legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. He said he worries that there is more of the same to come, with campuses serving as a sort of stage for these debates.
“People feel increasingly not only polarized, but also desperate. There’s a dangerous romanticization of violence — that there’s a moral imperative to take physical action to prevent speakers on campus that some find disagreeable. … There’s a sense that these speakers are not only voicing unpopular opinions but also doing some kind of physical or psychic harm to students on campus. There’s a conflation of spoken words and physical violence that I think is very dangerous and is being used, in some quarters, to justify this kind of reaction we’ve seen.”
Dirks, Berkeley’s chancellor, said Tuesday that because of the visibility of the clashes in recent months, and because of Berkeley’s iconic status — he said “everyone loves to be able to talk about how we’re the center of the ‘un-free speech movement’ ” — university officials are concerned that they have become an unwilling symbol.
“We feel like speakers are targeting us, precisely to provoke violent confrontations with a political purpose in mind,” Dirks said.
Jandhyala, the student who founded Bridges USA to fight polarization and spark dialogue between politically opposing groups, said that’s why his group invited Coulter.
Instead the whole affair has only polarized everyone involved further.
The Berkeley College Republicans, who were organizing the event alongside his, are no longer talking to him, he said. The threat of violence and protests looms over the campus as far-right and far-left groups are talking about showing up Thursday.
“I’m disappointed in the College Republicans, in the university, and Ann Coulter, who at some point in the middle of this just started trying to capitalize on the situation.”
Jandhyala said as late as Wednesday morning just before Coulter canceled her appearance, his group was still working on securing an off-campus venue and had identified several possibilities where her talk would have been live-streamed and where she could talk with a smaller crowd of students. But Jandhyala said Coulter’s team and the Berkeley College Republicans never responded to their proposal.
“It started to become more about provocation than being committed to this idea of free dialogue,” he said. “We were worried about the fact that she was going to come to speak and turn this campus more into a battleground than anything.”
Here is Dirk’s message to campus in full:
To the Members of the Berkeley Campus Community,As I write this, I am aware of the uncertainty surrounding Ann Coulter’s stated intention to come to campus tomorrow afternoon. We will be sending out a separate message later today with updated information about safety arrangements, as well as our hopes and expectations regarding how members of our campus community should conduct themselves. For now, I want to share my thoughts about all that has led up to the current situation in which we find ourselves.This University has two nonnegotiable commitments, one to Free Speech, the other to the safety of our campus community members, their guests, and the public. In that context, we cannot ignore or deny what is a new reality. Groups and individuals from the extreme ends of the political spectrum have made clear their readiness and intention to utilize violent tactics in support or in protest of certain speakers at UC Berkeley. In early February, a speaker’s presence on campus ignited violent conflict and significant damage to campus property. In March, political violence erupted on the streets of Berkeley. In April opposing groups again violently clashed on the edge of our campus. While some seem inclined to use these events and circumstances to draw attention to themselves, we remain focused on the needs, rights, and interests of our students and our community. We cannot wish away or pretend that these threats do not exist.The strategies necessary to address these evolving threats are also evolving, but the simplistic view of some — that our police department can simply step in and stop violent confrontations whenever they occur — ignores reality. Protecting public safety in these circumstances requires a multifaceted approach. This approach must take into account the use of “time, place, and manner” guidelines, devised according to the specific threats presented. Because threats or strategic concerns may differ, so must our approach. In all cases, however, we only seek to ensure the successful staging of free speech rights; we make no effort to control or restrict the content of expression, regardless of differing political views.This is a University, not a battlefield. We must make every effort to hold events at a time and location that maximizes the chances that First Amendment rights can be successfully exercised and that community members can be protected. While our commitment to freedom of speech and expression remains absolute, we have an obligation to heed our police department’s assessment of how best to hold safe and successful events.
In relation to the invitation made by a student group for Ann Coulter to speak at Berkeley this week, we have therefore to take seriously the intelligence UCPD has regarding threats of violence that could endanger our students, our community, and perhaps even Ms Coulter herself. It is specific, significant, and real. Yet, despite those threats we have, and will remain ready, to welcome her to campus, and assume the risks, challenges, and expenses that will attend her visit. That is demanded by our commitment to Free Speech. What we will not do is allow our students, other members of the campus community, and the public to be needlessly endangered by permitting an event to be held in a venue that our police force does not believe to be protectable. If UCPD believes there is a significant security threat attendant to a particular event, we cannot allow it to be held in a venue with a limited number of exits; in a hall that cannot be cordoned off; in an auditorium with floor to ceiling glass; in any space that does not meet basic safety criteria established by UCPD. This is the sole reason we could not accommodate Ms. Coulter on April 27th, and the very reason we offered her alternative dates in early May and September, when venues that satisfy safety requirements are available.
Contrary to some press reports and circulating narratives, the UC Berkeley administration did not cancel the Coulter event and has never prohibited Ms. Coulter from coming on campus. Instead, we received a request to provide a venue on one single day, chosen unilaterally by a student group without any prior consultation with campus administration or law enforcement. After substantial evaluation and planning by our law enforcement professionals, we were forced to inform the group that, in light of specific and serious security threats that UCPD’s intelligence had identified, there was no campus venue available at a time on that date where the event could be held safely and without disruption. We offered an alternative date for the event (which was rejected) and offered to work with the group to find dates in the future when the event could occur. Throughout this process our effort has been to support our students’ desire to hold their event safely and successfully.Sadly and unfortunately, concern for student safety seems to be in short supply in certain quarters. We believe that once law enforcement professionals determine there are security risks attendant to a particular event, speakers need to focus on what they actually want to achieve. If it is to speak to a large audience, to make a case for their positions, to engage students in discourse, we stand ready to make that work on any date when a protectable venue is available. If, on the other hand, the objective is stir up conflict and violence without regard for the safety, rights, and interests of others in order to advance personal interests we cannot abandon our commitment to the safety of our community members.
We will work cooperatively with members of our campus community who would sponsor events to ensure that those events can occur and that the campus can actually benefit from the dialogue their invited speakers might generate. To this end, we are working to clarify our policies and practices so that all know what is expected and how sponsors can best engage us to facilitate the success of their planned events. We trust that cooperation and good will among the members of our own community can help us jointly defend our campus against the threats to both speech and safety currently being posed by outside groups.Sincerely,Nicholas DirksChancellorUC Berkeley
Dwoskin reported from Berkeley. Staff writer Perry Stein contributed to this report.