I am the founder of BridgeUSA at Berkeley, the nonpartisan organization that worked with College Republicans to invite Ann Coulter to the University of California at Berkeley’s campus. Our organization hopes to create a future in which our campus and our country are venues for free and fair political discussion and debate from all sides. We stand for the preservation of spaces where political ideas can be shared and challenged without fear of violence.
To that end, we decided to help bring Coulter to Berkeley today to speak to a body of mainly liberal students on immigration. Unfortunately, threatened attacks from extremist groups forced the cancellation of this event. Let’s be clear: Blame for the cancellation of Coulter’s speech does not rest solely on the shoulders of any individual. The administration, student groups including ours, external resistance groups and the media all made mistakes that need to be corrected. Fundamentally, though, the system of political dialogue and debate is broken, not just on this campus, but across the nation.
We formed our organization earlier this year after the infamous Milo Yiannopoulos event here, where an incendiary speaker, violent rioters and a divided nation combined to create the perfect storm of political controversy. The university canceled a speech in February by Yiannopoulos, a prominent conservative writer, after intense protests that led to a campuswide “shelter in place” order. That day, instigation and violence replaced mediation and conversation — and we wanted to repair this breakdown in communication. Our goal since then has been to facilitate dialogue between political opposites, allowing everyone to engage with and understand opposing viewpoints. We have so far been successful in hosting forum sessions and debates on a series of different issues. We’ve hosted five events in about two months. Many students were immediately interested in our mission, and our membership has expanded rapidly — we have 40 officers and about 150 to 200 members.
Coulter was the choice of conservative groups on campus to represent their perspective in a larger campus debate about illegal immigration we were hosting. Liberal groups on campus had chosen Maria Echaveste, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. She spoke on April 17 and answered questions from conservative students in the audience.
Coulter’s ideas have an audience, and though most members of our group don’t agree with her, we recognize the following she draws. We also understand that many see her as an inflammatory figure with destructive beliefs that disqualify her from appearing at an institution of higher learning. But we believe the only productive way to fight views one sees as bad or dangerous is with better views. So we chose to get involved and include Coulter in our speaker series on immigration so students could hear, and actively challenge, her views. We planned for the event to be a debate-style Q&A with rebuttals to allow for a back-and-forth dialogue. Coulter would have fielded tough questions about her views from students in the audience, and we would have done our part to ensure that she would answer those questions in their entirety and give students the opportunity to respond. Rather than repeating the failures of Yiannopoulos’s event, we wanted to create a national example for what free discourse and the questioning of ideas should look like here at Berkeley, the home of the free speech movement 50 years ago.
Free speech isn’t about provocation, violence, publicity stunts, selling books or testing limits. At their best, universities start and nurture conversations that advance dialogue and understanding further. Regrettably, the developments surrounding this event led it to fall out of line with our beliefs as an organization.
National media coverage of Coulter’s visit mostly overlooked BridgeUSA at Berkeley’s role and our plan for the event, instead reporting that the incident was a repeat of the Yiannopoulos fracas — exactly what we set out to avoid. And as the tensions between student safety and free speech entered the justice system, Yiannopoulos himself announced that he would be organizing a “free speech week” on Sproul Plaza where he and his supporters would attack a new perceived “enemy of free speech” every day. It pains me to see our campus being used as a pulpit for bad actors, people whose goal is to elevate themselves by inciting violence, without a thought for the safety of students who live and attend school here.
Sproul Plaza is becoming a battleground, and the ones who are left to pick up the bill of consequences is the Berkeley student body, which is vilified every day in the press for destruction that outside groups are responsible for. Antifa and other “black-bloc” groups that are able to organize do so far beyond the perimeters of our campus, and they receive an insignificant amount of support from Berkeley students, if any. But in national news, all that’s seen is violence and destruction being used to censor speech.
What’s disheartening to me is seeing the words “free speech” being used as a tool to garner headlines and publicity. The whole purpose behind the idea of free speech has been lost. What’s happening on our campus is no longer about advancing discourse anymore. It’s no longer an attempt to reach a larger truth and understanding about policy issues so that better decisions can be made. It’s just a furious chase to get in front of the news cameras and be trending on Twitter and Facebook.
Conservative groups, in their attempt to frame this complex series of events as a “free speech battle” by suing Berkeley’s administration, have used the label of free speech as a tool for publicity. Our organization prides itself on the values of free inquiry and discourse, yet we understand the impossible trade-off that the university faces: the administration is caught between upholding its commitment to free speech and its responsibility for student safety.
The administration attempted to work with us, to propose alternative dates this semester and next semester where a defensible venue would be available. In balancing the concerns of protecting students and allowing peaceful protest, they never backed down from their commitment to help us bring Coulter to campus. It is easy and expedient to blame the university in this situation, but that avoids the actual problem. The true issue here is not the way that the university handled this situation; rather, it is the fact that this trade-off between student safety and free speech even exists in the first place.
It’s a scary situation when the university cannot perfectly perform its duty, when it cannot guarantee the safety of all speakers at all times in all places. Those who would threaten student safety and destroy our campus to silence speech they disagree with are culpable for the existence of this new trade-off. And violence and threats which restrict the free exchange of ideas constitute fascism under the banner of anti-fascism.
We challenge the Berkeley administration, the Berkeley College Republicans and Coulter to work collaboratively and address the cancellation of the event and the current political climate. These respective parties continue to affirm their commitment to free speech, but they have demonstrated minimal effort in speaking freely with one another. Civil discussions are necessary to progress our democracy and address pressing points of contention.
We can alleviate polarization if we come to the table to talk, but until then, there is no constructive way forward. Threatening violence does not change minds, and instigating controversy for publicity does not fix a broken system. We, as a community, have to recognize that there is a world outside of Berkeley: How can we promote what we believe if we are associated with images of violence? We need to act with the knowledge that everyone is watching.
We refuse to meet speech with violence and oppression. We refuse to invoke the right to free speech to inflame, attack and generate publicity. We refuse to accept the current status quo surrounding speech on university campuses across the country. Instead, we will continue to pursue our mission of creating environments in which students can engage with their peers as free thinkers, express their opinions without fear and have their beliefs, suppositions and prejudices challenged rather than dismissed. Only through these means can we begin to bridge the gap brought on by polarization and allow for a free exchange of political ideas.
Written with additional contributions by Sean Vernon, editor of BridgeUSA at Berkeley’s publication