Students

At Berkeley, a Speaker’s Cancellation Spurs New Battles Over Free Speech

April 27, 2017

Dan Honda/East Bay Times via AP Images
Troy Worden, president of the Berkeley College Republicans, one of the groups that invited Ann Coulter to the campus, talks to reporters on Wednesday after Ms. Coulter canceled her plans to speak.

One week ago, the conservative commentator and firebrand Ann Coulter insisted that she would be speaking at the University of California at Berkeley, over administrators’ objections that the event wouldn’t be safe. But following heavy posturing, a legal challenge, and plenty of Berkeley bashing, Ms. Coulter dropped her plans.

On Wednesday, she said on Twitter and to news outlets, including The New York Times, that she was concerned about the safety of the event, and laid the blame for the lack of security at the feet of the university. The student groups who had helped book Ms. Coulter’s speech, the Young America’s Foundation and the Berkeley College Republicans, pulled their support from the event on Tuesday afternoon because of safety concerns.

 

 

(Ms. Coulter told the Associated Press that she might “swing by to say hello” to her supporters on Thursday.)

Berkeley has been sharp in its response, saying it tried to work with Ms. Coulter and that it supported her right to speak in a safe venue, but that they needed more time to find the appropriate space. And the mostly conservative students who organized the event, though they disagree among themselves, split the blame between both Ms. Coulter and the university.

The kerfuffle and subsequent recriminations show just how charged the political atmosphere is for Berkeley, heralded as the cradle of the free-speech movement on college campuses. And the events highlight lessons other colleges might have to learn in order to both honor their dedication to free speech and protect the safety of students and speakers.

Among those lessons: The free-speech fights may never end. Despite Ms. Coulter’s decision to stand down, the university was still bracing for potential violence on Thursday.

‘A University, Not a Battlefield’

The fracas over Ms. Coulter has unfolded in an already fractious atmosphere. Earlier this year, Milo Yiannopoulos’s aborted appearance on the campus sparked a riot and a threat from President Trump to cut off the campus’s federal funding. And just this month, protests in the City of Berkeley turned violent.

Days after that violent weekend, citing potential threats from off-campus groups, university officials initially said they couldn’t host Ms. Coulter on April 27, the date originally scheduled by the Berkeley College Republicans. Instead the university offered her a May 2 speaking date. Ms. Coulter rejected the changes, and said she would speak on April 27, as originally planned.

In a campuswide message on Wednesday morning, Berkeley's chancellor, Nicholas B. Dirks, wrote that the reason Ms. Coulter’s speech had been canceled for the 27th stemmed from the lack of a safe venue for the speaker.

“This is a university, not a battlefield,” Mr. Dirks wrote. “We must make every effort to hold events at a time and location that maximizes the chances that First Amendment rights can be successfully exercised and that community members can be protected.”

In a cramped room full of reporters and cameras on Wednesday, a spokesman for the university and a campus-police captain reiterated that the institution’s insistence on May 2 was a matter of logistics. Namely, it was the challenge of finding a safe venue that wasn't already booked, one that doesn’t have floor-to-ceiling glass windows and does have a sufficient number of exits, among other things. “The number of venues on this campus that meet those criteria are few and far between. We’re 50,000 people here and they’re often booked out months in advance,” said Dan Mogulof, the spokesman.

“We must make every effort to hold events at a time and location that maximizes the chances that First Amendment rights can be successfully exercised and that community members can be protected.”

He added that poor planning on the part of the sponsoring student groups, the Berkeley College Republicans and BridgeUSA, were responsible for the current challenges. “We wouldn’t be sitting here and this wouldn’t be a story if the student group in question had followed procedure,” Mr. Mogulof said. “In nobody’s memory here has so much time been spent with a single student group trying to make a single event work because we support their right and ability to bring speakers of their choosing to this campus.”

The police official, Capt. Alex Yao, said the campus police would be “highly visible” and would have a “very low tolerance” for any type of violence on the campus on Thursday, based on intelligence they had previously gathered. Even though Ms. Coulter has canceled her speech, “we’re still planning for the potentiality of a riot-like situation occurring in our community,” he said.

And Mr. Dirks, in a late-afternoon email to the campus, wrote that people looking to avoid protests should steer clear of Sproul Plaza, the area where the free-speech movement started in 1964. “Our campus will not tolerate acts of violence or the destruction of property in our community,” Mr. Dirks wrote, and the police will “investigate, arrest and prosecute anyone who commits crimes on our campus.”

‘A Terrible Situation’

Naweed Tahmas, a member of the Berkeley College Republicans, said during an impromptu news conference on Sproul Plaza on Wednesday afternoon that the blame for the cancellation lay with the university for failing to provide an appropriate venue. The group and its lawyer, Harmeet Dhillon, charged again, as they had done in a lawsuit filed earlier in the week, that the university was unfairly limiting their right to free speech.

“Unfortunately, despite giving the university four weeks to prepare, they have not provided a venue for us and the UCPD has refused to ensure the safety of all students,” said Mr. Tahmas. “They have not provided any assurance to us that they will provide safety for Ann Coulter as well. They may have won the battle, but certainly not the war.”

“Unfortunately, despite giving the university four weeks to prepare, they have not provided a venue for us and the UCPD has refused to ensure the safety of all students.”

It was difficult to hear the soft-spoken Mr. Tahmas and later the group’s president, Troy Worden, over the shouts of protesters who materialized on the scene with a bullhorn. That group included a man holding a large sign that declared, “No” and featured a web address, “refusefascism.org.”

Pranav Jandhyala, who is co-president of BridgeUSA, the other sponsoring organization, said his group wanted to have an open discussion rather than wage a battle over the First Amendment. And he acknowledged that campus administrators were in a tough spot and said they had done what they could to make the event happen, given the crossed wires in planning the event.

“This event wasn’t supposed to be the testing of free speech, it was supposed to be an example of what dialogue and discourse can look like when we bring someone as controversial as Ann Coulter,” Mr. Jandhyala said.

But what’s most frustrating, Mr. Jandhyala said, is the way Berkeley’s name is being co-opted.

“People are using our campus community and UC Berkeley as a battleground. People are using it for their own self-elevation, for publicity,” he said. “It’s resulting in a terrible situation for our perception in the nation. It’s resulting in a terrible situation for the safety of our student body.”

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

Correction (5/11/2017, 11:15 a.m.): The original version of this article misspelled the name of the website “refusefascism.org” as "refusefacism.org." The error has been corrected.