Administration

Details on Berkeley Free-Speech Event Are Hazy, but Campus Readies for Another Fight

August 24, 2017

Brooke Anderson
Protesters shut down Milo Yiannopoulos’s visit to the U. of California at Berkeley in February. The campus is bracing for the possible return next month of the right-wing provocateur, perhaps along with others.

The organizers of an event meant to promote free speech at the University of California at Berkeley have their lips sealed about who will be speaking at the series.

The institution, however, said Wednesday that a student group invited speakers who have caused controversy at the campus previously, including Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter. The former presidential adviser Stephen K. Bannon was also on that list.

Someone who responded to The Chronicle’s inquiry to Mr. Yiannopoulos’s email account for the media identified him or herself as an organizer of the event. That person also said no speaker list had yet been established.

"The only people who know the current status of the line up are my team and the student organizers," the person wrote. "You have published unconfirmed rumor from UC Berkeley staff as fact."

Two students with the Berkeley Patriot, the student group hosting the event, said that the planning was still underway and that they couldn’t discuss details on Wednesday. Those representatives, Pranav Jandhyala and Bryce Kasamoto wouldn’t confirm the names listed by the university.

Dan Mogulof, Berkeley’s spokesman, has said the university is working with the student group to coordinate the free-speech gathering said to be planned from September 24 to 27.

He said on Thursday that the student group informed him that Mr. Bannon’s invitation hadn’t been confirmed. When asked a follow-up question about the speakers, Mr. Mogulof said, "I should really let the students speak for themselves."

The writer emailing from Mr. Yiannopoulos’s account wrote: "Why would I not be coming? I’m organizing and paying for the entire Free Speech Week, as you would know if you had done even the most cursory research. Stop wasting my time."

Carol T. Christ, chancellor of the university, confirmed in a Wednesday statement that Mr. Yiannopoulos had been invited to speak at the campus.

"We will not tolerate violence, and we will hold anyone accountable who engages in it," her statement read.

Fears of More Violence

The mere announcement of the invitations has riled some in the Berkeley community, which started its fall semester this week. Mr. Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at the university in February, but that event was canceled after violent protests. Ms. Coulter had been scheduled to speak at Berkeley in April but that event was ultimately canceled over safety concerns as well.

Students and professors told The Chronicle on Thursday that they feared the September event could devolve into violence. That happened at the University of Virginia this month after a group of white nationalists marched on the campus to protest the removal of a Confederate monument.

Caiden Nason, a student who is president of the Cal Berkeley Democrats, said he is warning students to stay away from the more contentious speakers out of worries that the event might get out of control. Representatives of Berkeley’s College Republicans could not be reached on Thursday for comment.

Mr. Nason said he is trying to plan another event for students, away from Mr. Yiannopoulos, so they have a healthy outlet for expression.

Berkeley’s campus is open, he said, and hard to control. He worries Mr. Yiannopoulos’s event will endanger students who are not involved.

"They’re going to be the ones really affected by this. Their area will be shut down for security concerns," Mr. Nason said. "I’ve heard from Republican students and those on the very far left who are concerned with the safety of the event. … Our worry is it will spiral into something it shouldn’t spiral into."

Others expressed their concern on Twitter including UC-Berkeley’s student-body president, Zaynab AbdulQadir-Morris, who posted the message below in what appeared to be a response to Ms. Christ’s statement.

Stephanie Edd, a writer and 2010 alumnae who lives in Berkeley, said people in town are afraid, too.

Ms. Edd said she understands that the university is in a difficult position because it is a student group that invited the speakers, but she says she wished the university would speak directly to the problem, not use "mealy-mouthed, neoliberal language" to skirt the issue.

"I really wish that the leaders of the university — the chancellor — I wish that they would be brave," Ms. Edd said. "I wish that they would gird themselves and find their courage and say the truth and not just worry about their job."

Kevin Padian, a longtime professor of integrative biology at Berkeley, suggested that people follow the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guidelines in dealing with the so-called alt-right groups: Just stay away.

"There’s no pretending you can have reasoned discourse with Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter," he said. "No one learns anything."

Mr. Padian also added that the university can do more to prevent violence at protests, and he called the university police response at Mr. Yiannopoulos’s February event embarrassing. But he also said that time and space on the campus is limited and that the academic mission should remain a priority.

"My free-speech right is to run my damn class, frankly," Mr. Padian said.

Robert Jacobsen, a physics professor and a dean at the university, said a large majority of people on campus are exasperated by the potential speakers.

"It’s 'yeah we don’t like these people, but we do have to let people talk,'" Mr. Jacobsen said of the mood he has observed on most on campus. "And if everybody would just cool down three notches, they could."

Mr. Jacobsen said the remaining groups either feel threatened by these speakers coming to the university or want to engage constructively with them.

And at least one student group is planning a counterprotest.

Berkeley’s International Socialist Organization participated in the protest that led to the cancellation of Mr. Yiannopoulos’s speech in February, according to Mukund Rathi, a spokesman for the student group.

He said the group would take a similar tack for these speakers as well.

But plans to protest, Mr. Rathi said, don’t indicate an opposition to free speech.

"The university should not cancel these speeches," Mr. Rathi said, "or what we as students choose to do with our free-speech rights."

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