The university first announced Wednesday that it was canceling Coulter’s April 27 appearance following several political protests in Berkeley that turned violent. But amid mounting criticism and national attention, the school reversed its decision Thursday, saying that it had found a safe venue to hold the speech on a different date, May 2.
Coulter and the college Republican group that invited her rejected the new arrangement.
In a series of tweets Thursday night, Coulter criticized the university, saying Berkeley officials were adding “burdensome” conditions to her speech. She said she had already spent money to hold the event on April 27 and was not available to appear May 2. She also pointed out that the later date would coincide with a reading period before final exams, when there are no classes on campus and fewer students are around.
Instead, she vowed to speak in Berkeley on April 27 whether the university approves or not.
A leader from the college group that invited Coulter said that the group plans to hold the event April 27 only if the university provides a venue. But, the group leader said, a national conservative group, the Young America’s Foundation, is separately working with Coulter to explore spaces off-campus where she could speak April 27.
An attorney for the Berkeley College Republicans group that invited Coulter sent a letter late Thursday to the university threatening litigation if the university does not allow Coulter to speak on campus April 27. In the four-page letter, the attorney demands that the university find a venue near the center of campus for Coulter and allow her to speak in the evening rather than during the day. If that does not happen, the letter says, “we will seek relief in federal court, including claims for injunctive relief and damages.”
University spokesman Dan Mogulof responded to the lawsuit threat, saying, “We are confident that we are on very solid legal grounds.”
Mogulof said the university does not have a venue open April 27 that campus police think can host Coulter without risk to those involved.
“We are concerned about her disregard for the assessment and recommendations of law enforcement professionals whose primary focus is the safety and well-being of our students and other members of our campus community,” Mogulof said.
Coulter and the college Republicans group accused the university of placing strict conditions on the event. But a Berkeley spokesman rejected the claim, saying the one main request the university made in extending its new invitation was to hold the event in the afternoon.
In its offer to Coulter to host her speech on campus on the new date, the university has asked for the event to end by 3 or 3:30 p.m., Mogulof said. Holding the event later in the day would risk protests and potential violence stretching into the evening, when the campus tends to get crowded with commuters and students.
“Everything we’re doing is so the speaker and students can actually exercise their rights without disruption,” Mogulof said. “It’s hard to understand this display of disdain and disregard for the assessment of law enforcement professionals, particularly when their primary concern is the safety and well-being of college students.”
If Coulter does appear next week as she promises, it will most likely spark further debate on the campus as the university continues to wrestle with safety, student views and ideological openness.
But finding a venue, even off-campus, could prove difficult. Berkeley, a relatively small city, has only a few venues that could accommodate large crowds, and some property owners would probably be reticent to rent their space, given the violence that has occurred over the past three months when other right-wing groups have staged events in Berkeley.
Reporters at the San Francisco Chronicle called a half-dozen venues Thursday, and none said they could or would host Coulter.
“Absolutely not,” one owner told the Chronicle. “Not only would we not agree with her politics, but we would also be concerned about the kind of crowds that she would attract.”
It was the same concerns about violence that led university officials to originally cancel the Coulter event. In a letter to the college Republicans, university officials said that after assessing the violence that flared on campus in February, when the same college Republican group invited right-wing provocateur and now-former Breitbart News senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos to speak, they decided to cancel the Coulter event.
On Friday, Yiannopoulos waded back into the controversy, announcing plans in a Facebook post to hold an entire week of events at Berkeley to protest the university’s recent actions. “We will hold talks and rallies and throw massive parties, all in the name of free expression and the First Amendment,” the post reads. “Free speech has never been more under threat in America — especially at the supposed home of the free speech movement.”
Yiannopoulos did not specify a date for his planned protest, saying only that it would happen “later this year.”
On Feb. 1, the last time Yiannopoulos was supposed to speak on campus, some protesters set fires, threw rocks and molotov cocktails, and attacked members of the crowd to try to shut down the event. The violence and damage garnered national attention and forced officials to put the campus on lockdown.
After the university canceled Yiannopoulos’s talk, President Trump criticized the school and threatened in a tweet to pull federal funds from Berkeley.
If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2017
Clashes between conservatives and liberals have continued since, both in Berkeley and elsewhere. As recently as last weekend, protests again turned violent — though in the city of Berkeley, not the university campus — as pro-Trump and anti-Trump protesters clashed in the streets. The violence Saturday escalated throughout the day as activists from both the far left and far right joined the fray.
At Auburn University in Alabama on Tuesday, three people were arrested amid protests and a fistfight that occurred over a speech by self-proclaimed white nationalist leader Richard Spencer.
Still, the decision by Berkeley to cancel both events involving high-profile conservatives was especially notable given the campus’s role during the 1960s and 1970s as the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement and its long tradition of social protest. But even more surprising was the school’s reversal Thursday.
Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said the April 27 speaking date presented safety and venue challenges.
“Our police department has made it clear that they have very specific intelligence regarding threats that could pose a grave danger to the speaker, attendees and those who may wish to lawfully protest the event,” Dirks said. “At the same time, we respect and support Ms. Coulter’s own First Amendment rights.”
Dirks said that after the cancellation was announced, he asked university staff to “look beyond the usual venues we use for large public gatherings to see if there might be a protectable space for this event. … Fortunately, that expanded search identified an appropriate, protectable venue.”
University officials have emphasized that they are not canceling Coulter’s event because of her sharply conservative views.
“It has nothing to do with anyone’s political views. We believe in unqualified support to the First Amendment,” Mogulof said Wednesday. “But we also have an unqualified focus on safety of our students.”
The decision to cancel Coulter’s speech drew sharp criticism from some on campus, such as Robert Reich, a Berkeley professor who served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration.
“This is a grave mistake,” Reich said in a Facebook post. He said universities should “do everything possible to foster and protect” free speech, writing that students should be allowed to hear Coulter’s arguments and question them.
“It’s one thing to cancel an address at the last moment because university and local police are not prepared to contain violence. … It’s another thing entirely to cancel an address before it is given, when police have adequate time to prepare for such eventualities,” he said.
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Perry Stein and Brian Murphy contributed to this report, which has been updated.