Leadership & Governance

Berkeley’s Leader Saw Hints That ‘Free Speech Week’ Was a Stunt. Here’s Why She Planned for It Anyway.

September 26, 2017

AP Photo/Daisy Nguyen
Demonstrators protest the appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos at a rally in Berkeley, Calif., on Sunday, ahead of a "Free Speech Week" that seemed to vaporize.

In the days and weeks leading up to his planned Free Speech Week at the University of California at Berkeley, Milo Yiannopoulos talked a big game about the murderer’s row of conservative speakers he had assembled. But last week Chancellor Carol Christ was coming to doubt that he ever actually intended to go through with the event.

Now that Free Speech Week has fizzled, she said in an interview on Tuesday that she remains unconvinced.

Last week, Ms. Christ said, it became clearer and clearer the event was a “fiction,” following a series of deadlines missed by the sponsoring student group, disavowals from promised speakers who said they had been listed without their knowledge, and general confusion and miscommunication. 

On Saturday, two days before what was supposed to be the start of a four-day festival, the Berkeley Patriot, the student group sponsoring Free Speech Week, announced that it was canceling all of its planned events. Weeks of hype culminated in a short appearance by Mr. Yiannopoulos, the campus provocateur, in the heavily policed Sproul Plaza on Sunday. He spoke for about 20 minutes before leaving. (Mr. Yiannopoulos has said he was told to evacuate because of protesters in the area.) 

The appearance may have been anticlimactic, but it wasn’t cheap. Security, the university estimated, cost Berkeley about $800,000.

Ms. Christ doesn’t know what to make of it all. She said the goal could have been to create called an “attractive narrative for the alt-right” — an episode that would end either with the university canceling the speech or perhaps with a riot that would force law enforcement to intercede. The former result would provide grist for Mr. Yiannopoulos’s portrayal of Berkeley as antipathetic to free expression; the latter would feed his critiques of the “violent left.”

Ms. Christ has started to think of the event as a counterpoint to another one held earlier this month at Berkeley: a speech by the conservative commentator and speaker Ben Shapiro. In that case, the Berkeley College Republicans invited Mr. Shapiro to speak, and he did so, albeit surrounded by a heavy police presence. In that case, Ms. Christ said, the goal appeared to be the stated one. The act of speaking to college students was more important than whatever digital imprint Mr. Shapiro’s lecture might have made.

With Mr. Yiannopoulos, the goal appeared to be reversed, she said.

“What was the object was whatever digital event could be created from this extraordinarily strange set of circumstances,” Ms. Christ told The Chronicle. “And what was the shadow was anything real.”

‘Extraordinary Resources’

Ms. Christ is by no means alone in wondering whether Free Speech Week was a mirage. In an email message obtained by The Mercury News, Lucian B. Wintrich, a journalist for the conservative website Gateway Pundit who had been listed as a speaker at the event, told Dan Mogulof, the university’s spokesman, that the planners “didn’t intend to actually go through with it last week.”

But Mr. Yiannopoulos’s camp refuted the idea that the event was a stunt.

“No, it was never intended to be a publicity stunt, and to suggest it was is a slap in the face to the students who worked tirelessly to make this event happen in the face of bureaucratic stonewalling,” wrote Alexander Macris, chief executive of MILO Inc., Mr. Yiannopoulos’s media company. “But the Berkeley administration seems willing to say or do anything to justify its authoritarian censorship of its own students."

A lawyer for the student group, Marguerite Melo, also challenged the idea that the event was conceived as a stunt. She disagreed with Ms. Christ’s statement that the students had failed to cooperate with the administration. And if they were trying to do this as a stunt, they could have done it with much less hassle. The group has filed a complaint against the university with the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. 

“The students really wanted to make this happen,” Ms. Melo told The Chronicle on Tuesday afternoon. 

She also said the university wouldn’t have made planning for the event so difficult if the the students had invited less-controversial speakers. 

“The situation at UC Berkeley has become downright physically dangerous this past year for conservative students who merely wish to exercise their God-given rights to freedom of speech and association that are enshrined in the Constitution,” the group’s complaint reads.

In the lead-up to the event, Mr. Mogulof repeatedly said the Patriot had missed several deadlines to sign contracts that would have allowed it to rent indoor spaces.

Ms. Christ, however, said the administration had continued to work with the group because she felt it was necessary to show that Berkeley was willing to host a conservative speaker. Canceling the event prior to the appearance by Mr. Shapiro would have fed the narrative that the university was hostile to conservative views.  

“We took extraordinary measures to try and accommodate them even though they missed all these deadlines,” Ms. Christ said. “And we have spent extraordinary resources, not just in money for security, but in people’s time, and the amount of administrative attention this has received.”

She also said she wished the university had had policies in place to respond to some of the initial concerns with Free Speech Week, such as the student group’s plan to host the event over four days.

“There’s something wrong with our policies,” Ms. Christ said, “if you can have a very small student group make the reservations that would essentially occupy the center of campus for four days and involve such enormous expense.”

But the university was obligated to follow the rules it had in place, she said. She plans to create a commission — which will include students, staff, and faculty — to examine university policies that govern events. Mr. Mogulof, the spokesman, said the policies would remain neutral to the content or perspective of the speakers. 

Those might come into play again. The Berkeley Patriot has invited Mr. Yiannopoulos to return in April, Mr. Macris said. Ms. Christ, though, said it’s hard to take Mr. Yiannopoulos at his word.

“We have all learned about a very different game with the Milo event that I certainly didn’t anticipate,” she said. “With everything that happens in life, you try to learn from it, and to an extent you know you have to understand you have limited control of what goes on in your life and you try to make the best decisions you can.”

‘Rolling Out a Welcome Mat’

In recent days, Ms. Christ, who became chancellor this year, has been assailed on one side by Mr. Yiannopoulos’s camp for creating an environment and a set of logistical hurdles that made it impossible for him to stage Free Speech Week the way he had hoped.

On the other side, she has faced criticism from some faculty members. They have questioned why the university would spend so much accommodating Mr. Yiannopoulos at a time when finances are already tight and argued that his presence attracts outsiders prone to violence. (That was the case in February, when riots spearheaded by outside protesters caused the cancellation of a speech by Mr. Yiannopoulos.) In an opinion piece published in The Daily Californian, the board of Berkeley’s Faculty Association accused the university of “rolling out a welcome mat for speakers opposed to the public university’s mission.”

The faculty members argued that the money spent to provide security for “professional provocateurs” would be better spent “for the development of undergraduate education, for providing graduate students, lecturers, and staff with living wages for the Bay Area, or for making buildings compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

On Monday, about 200 people — a group that included students, faculty members, and others — marched across campus to protest the administration's decision to host Mr. Yiannopoulos. They also rallied against the militarization of the campus, The Daily Californian reported. 

Ms. Christ would also prefer to spend the money elsewhere, she said. But she added that the outlay did provide some benefit.

“Keeping our campus safe and protecting free speech in the way the First Amendment guarantees are very important goals,” she said. “Free speech isn’t free by a long shot.”

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