As ‘Free Speech Week’ Crumbled, Berkeley Braced for … Something

September 22, 2017

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Milo Yiannopoulos is escorted by police officers after appearing Sunday at the University of California at Berkeley. “I didn’t get to say much,” Mr. Yiannopoulos wrote of the event, which was intended to kick off a Free Speech Week that has largely crumbled. “But I’ll be back.”

Updated (9/24/2017, 9:54 p.m.) with details on Milo Yiannopoulos's Sunday appearance at UC-Berkeley.

On Friday, less than 48 hours before a four-day event that boldly sought to "reclaim free speech" at the University of California at Berkeley while presenting a major test for the institution’s leaders, all parties involved were asking two remarkable questions.

Is this going to happen? Was it even supposed to?

Berkeley Free Speech Week was portrayed as Milo Yiannopoulos’s shot across the bow of an institution that had, earlier this year, canceled his planned speech when violence broke out around it. Mr. Yiannopoulos, the campus-touring firebrand, arrived with huge promises: a guest list full of stars from the conservative and so-called alt-right movements, a security team of Navy Seals, and a challenge to the antifa, the protesters whose actions prompted the cancellation of his event in February.

By Friday, that ambitious talk had been replaced by a steady drip of rumors and statements that suggested the whole affair was falling apart. In the wee hours of the morning, Gateway Pundit, a conservative website, published a story featuring a video in which Lucian B. Wintrich, a journalist for the site, claimed the event would probably be canceled. Mr. Wintrich was not an entirely disinterested observer. He had initially agreed to attend the event but pulled out on Wednesday, prompting a representative of Mr. Yiannopoulos’s camp to call him "an irrelevance."

But then a similar report emerged from Mediaite, citing "sources close to the event" that stated Mr. Yiannopoulos "will be holding a theatrical press conference on Saturday in which he intends to call it off — and blame UC-Berkeley for its ‘forced cancellation.’"

Meanwhile, Mr. Yiannopoulos offered conflicting signals. In a rallying cry posted on Facebook, he promised that a Sunday march across Berkeley would "shatter their echo chambers" and "close down their safe spaces."

"It’s time to reclaim free speech at UC Berkeley and send shockwaves through the American education system to every other college under liberal tyranny," the message read.

But as the day stretched on, the cracks continued to widen. A public-radio station in Northern California reported that the student group hosting the event, the Berkeley Patriot, had canceled it. And then one of the most famous speakers at Free Speech Week, Ann Coulter, canceled, according to the Associated Press. Ms. Coulter had been among the "headliners" whose presence would render departures like Mr. Wintrich’s irrelevant, according to Mr. Yiannopoulos’s camp.

Even speakers who still seemed to be in the fold seemed confused. David Horowitz, a well-known critic of campus liberalism who was another main attraction, told The Chronicle he didn’t have a good sense of what was happening either. Meanwhile, there was talk that Stephen K. Bannon, yet another headliner, was set to appear at a rally on Sunday in St. Louis — far from Free Speech Week. The Atlantic appeared to close that loop, saying Mr. Bannon would not attend the event and instead would be in Alabama for the Republican Senate primary race.

Back on Facebook, Mr. Yiannopoulos stayed defiant. "The entire media establishment is reporting things it *hopes* are true," he wrote before adding a typically off-color comment: "They’re going to look pretty retarded tomorrow."

Despite the swirling uncertainty, Dan Mogulof, a spokesman for the university, said it was preparing as though the event would go on. "There is only one reason the university is in the process of spending close to a million dollars on these security arrangements: If these events take place, we want them to be safe and peaceful," Mr. Mogulof said in an email. "These actions by the university speak louder than words when it comes to our commitment to the First Amendment and free speech."

Then, on Saturday, the university announced that the Berkeley Patriot had indeed pulled the plug — informing the administration that all of its events for the week had been canceled. Posters and promotions had teased an impressive roster of speakers and conference themes, including "the impact of feminism on free expression" and "will America follow Europe’s lead into Islamization?" None were to take place.

In a letter to the university obtained by The Mercury News, Marguerite Melo, a lawyer retained by the group, attempted to pin the blame on recalcitrant Berkeley administrators. The Chronicle reached out to a spokesman for the student group, but he referred a request for comment to Ms. Melo. A phone call to Ms. Melo wasn’t returned on Friday.

But evidence suggested that quite a bit of the Free Speech Week slate never amounted to much more than talk. Would-be speakers told The Chronicle they had not been consulted before being listed as participants. Some of the people denied they would appear, including Charles A. Murray, the controversial political scientist who had his own free-speech ruckus this year at Middlebury College. The student group that was to host the event, the university said, missed several deadlines to sign contracts and accordingly lost access to several indoor venues.

And according to Mr. Wintrich, the Gateway Pundit speaker who bailed, the fix had been in for some time. In an email exchange with Mr. Mogulof, again obtained by The Mercury News, he told the university spokesman that “it was known that they didn’t intent to actually go through with it last week, and completely decided on Wednesday.”

Bracing for a Big Event

The university had continued to take the prospect of Free Speech Week seriously even as symptoms of distress plagued the event. After the Berkeley Patriot canceled, it could not let down its guard: Mr. Yiannopoulos insisted that he would still appear on campus Sunday. “I'll be on campus like I promised and like I paid for,” he wrote on Facebook. “And they better not try to stop me.”

As it turned out, Berkeley did not try to stop him. Yet Sunday’s rally at Berkeley fell short of Mr. Yiannopoulous’s boasts. Hundreds of people, some wearing clothing decorated with an American flag pattern, assembled outside to see the man behind Free Speech Week speak, though few would actually hear him.

The police cordoned almost all of Sproul Plaza, and law enforcement only let only a few people into the plaza, one at a time. Dozens of officers, some of them in what appeared to be riot gear, patrolled the area and at times interposed themselves between protesters, both supporters and critics of Mr. Yiannopoulos, when they appeared on the edge of confrontation.

Mr. Yiannopoulos, wearing denim and star-spangled print, showed up at noon as he promised, and spoke for about 20 to 30 minutes, signed autographs and snapped pictures with his fans. As reporters shouted questions, he then disappeared into a white SUV, surrounded by a security detail, and drove away.

In a statement, Mr. Yiannopoulos accused the university of making it intentionally difficult for those gathered to see him in Sproul Plaza, blamed the media for inaccurately reporting the number amount of people who showed up, and promised to return to Berkeley in the future.

It wasn’t immediately clear what the plan was for the rest of Free Speech Week.

“I didn’t get to say much,” Mr. Yiannopoulos wrote. “But I’ll be back.”

“We’re currently working out whether I can do something later this week or whether we wait for later this year,” he said in his statement. “We will be back to Berkeley over and over again, until the university starts treating its conservative students fairly.”

At a news conference following the event, Margo Bennett, UC-Berkeley’s police chief, estimated security costs at about $800,000. It wasn’t immediately clear what the next three days would bring, but Ms. Benneett said the police were staying alert.

“There were extraordinary security measures in place today,” Mr. Mogulof said. “Obviously we’re relieved that it was relatively peaceful and safe. At the same time, it feels a little bit like the most expensive photo op in the university’s history.”

Despite the many questions about the scope and organization of Free Speech Week, Berkeley seemed to have no choice but to brace for a major scene.

That’s in part because of the university’s history, both in the past year and dating back decades. The need for security is partly informed by skirmishes that have plagued the city of Berkeley this year. At Mr. Yiannopoulos’s abortive speech in February, what had been a peaceful protest of the event turned violent, and some of those gathered — most associated with the "black bloc" anarchist movement — smashed windows and set fires. Conservative news outlets and Mr. Yiannopoulos used the physicality of the protesters to deride what they described as the intolerance of the left.

On Twitter, President Trump then turned up the pressure on Berkeley, threatening to withhold federal funding if the university "does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view." (Nothing ever came of that threat.)

Berkeley came under fire again in April for what critics said was failing to protect freedom of speech in connection to Ms. Coulter. A kerfuffle over logistics and scheduling led to the cancellation of the event, though all parties blamed one another. Although Ms. Coulter didn’t speak, the police and administration prepared as though she would appear anyway. That meant masses of officers on the campus along orange jersey barriers. Nothing major happened that day on the campus, though protesters did gather in a nearby park.

By the time Ms. Coulter’s event fell through, a narrative had calcified among right-leaning media and, it seemed, in the White House: Berkeley, a bastion of student advocacy for dangerous speech in the 1960s, had become an institution that simply shut down conservative speech. In reflecting on the Coulter event, the chancellor at the time, Nicholas B. Dirks, told The Chronicle that Berkeley needed to reverse the narrative. "We at this point need to have a successful event," he said, "to show that we can in fact stage these things in ways that don’t get taken over by other groups."

The university may have gotten its wish this month in the form of a talk by Ben Shapiro, a conservative speaker who had made a name by touring campuses before Mr. Yiannopoulos. To accommodate him, the university closed nearby buildings and created a security perimeter around the venue where he spoke.

Again, no violence broke out. The university has cited that event as proof of its willingness to spend money and time to uphold the values of free speech.

That event cost Berkeley about $600,000, according to the university. The president of the University of California system, Janet A. Napolitano, told a group of reporters in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday that the administration would cover half the cost of the Shapiro event and would do the same for Free Speech Week, should its security cost prove substantial.

Even after a fairly successful handling of Mr. Shapiro’s speech, Ms. Napolitano acknowledged that Berkeley was a "target of opportunity" for speakers seeking to put the university on its heels. "This will be a test for Berkeley," she said.

‘Free-Speech Warriors’

That test has been postponed, but more will take place. Now that Free Speech Week appears certain to be drastically less than advertised, Berkeley is already facing blame from the organizers. The Berkeley Patriot has filed a civil complaint against the university, The Daily Californian reported, arguing that the group’s free-speech rights had been violated.

Mr. Yiannopoulos’s constantly-updated Facebook page, which has more than two million followers, now includes a lengthy list of grievances about Berkeley. One post refers to the dean of students, Joseph D. Greenwell, who stood outside the event, as “the face of authoritarian sabotage.”

Mr. Yiannopoulos appears to recognize what many others before him understand: that Berkeley’s history of liberal activism makes the university a compelling nemesis. The campus has been known as the birthplace for free-speech movements on college and university campuses ever since Mario Savio, a student, led a series of protests in 1964 decrying the university’s administration for obstructing students’ rights to political protest.

Mr. Yiannopoulos has compared his obstacles at Berkeley to Savio’s.

He has gone so far as to honor "the person who has done the most for free speech over the course of the last year" with an award named for Savio, who died in 1996. That move riled plenty of observers, including Savio’s widow and son, who both protested Mr. Yiannopoulos’s invocation of the activist. Mr. Yiannopoulos told The Mercury News he was happy to offend them. "These are no longer free-speech warriors," he said.

The Savios aren’t be alone in protesting Mr. Yiannopoulos’s attempt to seize the legacy of free speech at Berkeley. A Saturday march through the town “against white supremacy and fascism” drew hundreds of participants and a guest appearance from Chelsea Manning. And more than 200 instructors had planned to cancel their classes from Monday to Wednesday, when Mr. Yiannopoulos and company were originally to be on the campus.

Precisely what activities will they be protesting? That remains to be seen.

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at