The student group planning to hold a “Free Speech Week” at the University of California at Berkeley canceled the event Saturday, the day before it was expected to begin.
The plans had been closely watched because a controversial speaker, writer Milo Yiannopoulos, had been shut down by violent protests in February and had vowed to come back. In the months since, the school faced continuing fights over free speech, hate speech, politics and political correctness, and the surrounding community had bloody clashes between extremists on the far left and the far right.
“We will not be deterred,” Yiannopoulos said in a news conference Saturday afternoon. Without the support of the student group, he and the other speakers could not hold an official university event. But they would hold an unofficial one, he said, “come hell or high water.”
He said he and other speakers would be exercising their constitutional right to free expression Sunday at Sproul Plaza on campus, the site of the historic Free Speech Movement protests of the 1960s that made the flagship school a symbol of First Amendment rights. That iconic setting, and the school’s reputation as a politically liberal campus, have made it a magnet for controversial speakers this year.
Yiannopoulos also made his intentions clear on social media.
When Yiannopoulos tried to speak on campus in February, the reaction was intense. About a thousand people protested peacefully outside until 150 or so masked anti-fascist extremists joined the crowd, smashing windows and setting fires. University police shut down the event, leading Yiannopoulos to claim that the campus was continuing to stifle all but left-wing views, and President Trump to suggest that the school did not deserve federal funds.
At attorney for students from Berkeley Patriot, the student group that invited Yiannopoulos, wrote in a letter to campus officials that the students had been “subjected to extraordinary pressure and resistance, if not outright hostility,” from university officials since announcing their intention to host the event.
The group was canceling plans for the events, which had been expected to begin Sunday and end Wednesday, solely because of the actions of the university, Marguerite Melo wrote.
The group filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice this week, claiming that the university had engaged in a pattern of First Amendment violations, including imposing “arbitrary and irrational bureaucratic hurdles on student groups which seek to exercise their First Amendment rights by holding public debates.”
University spokesman Dan Mogulof said, “It is extremely unfortunate that this announcement was made at the last minute, even as the University was in the process of spending significant sums of money and preparing for substantial disruption of campus life to provide the needed security for these events.
“Claims that this is somehow the outcome desired by the campus are without basis in fact. The University was prepared to do whatever was necessary to support the First Amendment rights of the student organization.”
He said that claims that the university had sought to put speakers in harm’s way were unfortunate. “We were in the process of spending what could have amounted to a sum well in excess of one million dollars to make these events safe.”
Yiannopoulos had promised days of speeches about controversial ideas, and speakers who have sparked protests at other campuses. In recent days, problems with securing large indoor venues prompted even greater concerns about safety, as events would be much more difficult for police to control if they had to be held outdoors.
Confusion about speakers — some who were announced said they had never even been invited, and some who had planned to attend changed plans in recent days — added to last-minute uncertainty this week.
This morning, Melo said, she and the students concluded they could not ensure the safety of the remaining speakers. “They made the decision on the side of safety and having their free speech rights stifled,” she said. “We are extremely saddened.” As an alumna, she said, she could not have imagined that administrators would act in such a way.
“It looks like the university had its way, and won, over free speech.”
Mogulof pointed to a successful event this month, when the Berkeley College Republicans hosted conservative writer Ben Shapiro, “and numerous prior events with conservative speakers” as evidence that the university is deeply committed to freedom of speech.
“We want to send the strongest possible message that we will continue to work constructively with campus organizations to host their speakers on our campus.”
Melo said students were concerned that they were being investigated after the university’s chancellor, Carol Christ, sent a message to the campus community condemning some “hateful messaging” that had appeared on campus targeting certain groups, and said university police were investigating whether they were hate crimes. She said her clients in Berkeley Patriot “heard the threat loud and clear.”
In an email, Mogulof said that chalkings were found around campus, as well as posters naming students and faculty and describing them as terrorists. But he said the attorney’s claim was “another in a long line of false statements.” He said the police had not identified any suspects, were not looking at any particular group or individual, and has no reason to suspect anyone from Berkeley Patriot was involved.
The university cannot stop conservatives from speaking on campus, Yiannopoulos said Saturday, no matter what they try. He announced plans for a seven-month college tour, and promised “nice surprises” for people joining him at Berkeley Sunday.
Mogulof said the events that had been proposed, if not backed by a student group would need to comply with guidelines for outdoor campus events.
Those include a requirement that the events be “academically driven.” Yiannopoulos’s plans, Mogulof said, would not meet that standard.
He is, however, allowed to speak on the public campus as a private citizen.