Organizers of the “Free Speech Week” at the University of California at Berkeley insisted Monday that the event will go on, despite school officials’ announcement that some large indoor venues could not be rented for the events.
“We’ll do it outdoors if we need to,” said Pranav Jandhyala, a sophomore who is a member of the Berkeley Patriot, the student group that invited provocative writer Milo Yiannopoulos and others to campus. He said that conservative commentator Ann Coulter, frequent critic of Islam Pamela Geller and former chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon are all planning to speak there next week.
Coulter, and a spokeswoman for Bannon, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday. Geller said she is planning to speak. University officials released a list of speakers they said had been confirmed that did not include Coulter, Geller or Bannon.
The events were promised by Yiannopoulos after his own speech was canceled amid violent protests in February. When anti-fascist and other extremist protesters began smashing windows and lighting fires amid a large group of students peacefully protesting his talk, university police shut down the event.
That set off charges that Berkeley, the home of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s and a symbol for some of left-leaning college campuses, was stifling conservative speech. School officials countered that they had to ensure safety but were committed to the First Amendment. As the school year began with a new chancellor, Carol Christ, she promised to make this “the year of free speech” on campus, reminding the community that it is a defining value for the state flagship school.
Last week, conservative writer Ben Shapiro gave a well-attended talk on campus. The university spent more than half a million dollars on security for the event.
But on Monday, school officials said that the student group that had invited Yiannopoulos and others for the planned Sept. 24-27 event had missed multiple deadlines and would not be allowed to use the large indoor venues it sought.
An outdoor space raises considerably more security concerns, as university officials discussed last spring when Coulter said she would speak on the school’s iconic Sproul Plaza if she could not speak at an indoor event space. Tensions have been high in the city of Berkeley all year, with violent clashes between far-right and far-left protesters in the months since President Trump took office.
More than 100 faculty members called for a boycott of all classes and events during those days to protect the safety of students and campus. “As faculty we cannot ask students and staff to choose between risking their physical and mental safety in order to attend class or come to work in an environment of harassment, intimidation, violence, and militarized policing,” they wrote in the open letter. ” … if we allow this intolerant and bullying version of free speech to take over our campus, then it can only but come at the expense of the free speech rights of the Berkeley community as a whole. In fact, campus safety concerns have already forced the Anthropology Department to cancel a public talk during “free speech week.”
Dan Mogulof, a UC-Berkeley spokesman, wrote in a statement Monday that the university’s deadlines for event planning are important because the University of California Police Department needs time to prepare security arrangements and bring in officers from other agencies.
“We continue to hope that the student organization will meet its obligations and provide the campus and UCPD with the information needed to complete security arrangements. The University cannot defend spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide security arrangements for events based on a schedule built on a long list of unconfirmed speakers and/or a news release issued by an external commercial enterprise.”
He said that if the student group fails to complete the steps to hold the remaining nine reservations, they could reschedule to comply with the rules.
In an email Monday, Yiannopoulos wrote: “Everything they say and do is designed to bully and intimidate their students into canceling the event. The event will proceed regardless. They don’t get to select our itinerary or talk programme.”
In a news release, he said they had wired the fee of nearly $66,000 to the university Monday morning.
He said last week it was important to hold the event there. “UC-Berkeley has been one of the primary architects of the left’s intolerance for free speech and free expression. … They created this problem, and they should pay for it.”
Jandhyala acknowledged problems with the list of speakers.
Charles Murray, the author and libertarian scholar, said in a statement, “I was never contacted by the organizers of this event. The inclusion of my name in the list of speakers was done without my knowledge or permission.
“I will add that I would never under any circumstances appear at an event that included Milo Yiannopoulos.”
A spokeswoman for the Manhattan Institute said that Heather Mac Donald, who is listed as a speaker, had not been invited.
But since school officials had spoken of problems securing the venues in recent days, Jandhyala said some speakers had dropped out.
He said university officials are strategically working to derail the event with bureaucratic obfuscation and deadlines to avoid canceling it outright because of the negative publicity that would bring. He said his group repeatedly tried to ensure that contracts included clauses such as a refund of fees if the university canceled the event, and an assurance that the small student group would not be liable for massive costs if there were an emergency.
Despite his concerns about safety if events have to be held outdoors, he said they will not give up on the event, or trying to get the most controversial speakers. That is the type of speech most in need of protection, he said.
“No one will riot if Shapiro comes,” he said. “They’ll riot if Bannon comes.”