Shapiro often gives speeches on college campuses. But this is Berkeley, which has become the epicenter of clashes between the far left and the far right in recent months, with a series of highly charged controversies over politics, freedom of speech and academic freedom.
The state flagship campus, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s and for many a symbol of campus liberalism, has seen rallies in and around campus turn violent this year. As left-wing protesters, black-masked anarchists, Trump supporters and self-proclaimed militia groups clashed, windows were smashed, fistfights broke out and molotov cocktails got tossed.
“I look forward to speaking to students of all viewpoints at Berkeley,” Shapiro said in a written statement Tuesday afternoon. “I expect that the administration will not hide behind the heckler’s veto of despicable groups like Antifa to prevent this event from moving forward. The home of the free speech movement has an obligation to protect free speech.”
Antifa, an abbreviation for “antifascists,” is a term to describe radical and far-left groups that use “black bloc” tactics by wearing masks, dressing in black and often sparking riots and property damage at demonstrations.
Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor of UC-Berkeley, said Berkeley College Republicans had told them about the invitation Monday.
“Before anything else, we want to state unequivocally that Mr. Shapiro is welcome on the Berkeley campus and that we will work with the student organization to ensure they can host a safe and successful event,” Mogulof said in a statement.
He said the Republican group requested a venue on the main campus that can accommodate 500 attendees at 7 p.m. on Sept. 14.
“We will now, as per standard practice, work with the students to determine whether a suitable venue of that size is available on the intended date and time,” he said.
Police will also begin a security assessment, as required, Mogulof said, which could lead to recommendations about timing and location.
“We are confident that arrangements can and will be made for Mr. Shapiro to speak on the Berkeley campus, with the exact date and time depending only on the availability of an appropriate venue and the recommendations of law enforcement professionals,” Mogulof said. “We will do everything in our power to ensure that Mr. Shapiro, his hosts, and their guests can safely and successfully exercise their First Amendment rights. That commitment can be fulfilled only when events are held at a time and location that allow for the provision of any required security measures.”
In February, University of California police locked down the campus and canceled a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos after about 150 masked “black bloc” anarchists and radicals swarmed into a group of 1,500 or so students who had been demonstrating against the speech, and began throwing rocks and firecrackers at police, lit a propane tank on fire and broke windows.
To some, the shutdown was the only safe response to a dangerous situation. To others, it was a willful stifling of free speech, another assault on conservative ideas.
The morning after the cancellation, President Trump tweeted, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
Yiannopoulos, a polarizing former editor of Breitbart News, calls himself a free-speech fundamentalist fighting political correctness. His critics say he spreads hate. He was banned from Twitter last summer after sending tweets targeting an actress who is black.
Yiannopoulos has vowed to return for a week of free-speech events at Berkeley this fall.
In April, the College Republicans invited conservative commentator Ann Coulter to speak, and university officials canceled the event over safety concerns. Then, after a backlash, the school invited her to speak the following week in a more secure setting. The Young America’s Foundation and College Republicans filed a lawsuit against the university, claiming it had violated their right to free speech. Coulter did not give a speech, but protesters converged anyway.
At the time, Nicholas Dirks, then the chancellor of Berkeley, said the school was facing anger from both sides of the political spectrum, and a new reality, one in which people think of Berkeley as a place “for the mounting of pitched battle and the staging of violent controversies.”
Other campuses have seen battles over free speech and hate speech erupt; at Auburn University this spring, a fistfight broke out during protests when alt-right leader Richard Spencer spoke on campus. And earlier this year, an angry mob of hundreds surrounded author and conservative scholar Charles Murray after he tried to give a lecture at Middlebury College, climbing on the hood of his car and pounding on its windows as he tried to leave.
“Berkeley has a choice: To uphold the First Amendment rights of all students, or once again cave under pressure from extreme leftists and unconstitutionally censor conservative speech,” Spencer Brown, a spokesman for the Young America’s Foundation, said in a written statement.
Naweed Tahmas, external vice president of Berkeley College Republicans, said in a statement, “Students at Berkeley want and deserve to hear from Ben Shapiro, and they will this fall.”