As the cradle of the free speech movement in the 1960s, the University of California at Berkeley is a cherished place in the hearts of American liberals. And that’s precisely why the far right is bringing its own “free speech” movement to the historic steps of Sproul Plaza.
Eight months after a crowd of protesters ran him off campus, conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos is back, organizing a four-day event event dubbed “Free Speech Week” on Berkeley’s campus Sept. 24-27. The event’s website has featured Ann Coulter, Steve Bannon, noted anti-Islam crusader Pam Geller, and Blackwater founder Erik Prince. Other slated speakers range from conspiracy theorists to a right-wing, Banksy-like street artist. The four days’ themes: “Feminism Awareness Day”, “Islamic Peace and Tolerance Day,” “Mario Savio Is Dead” (higher education), and “Zuck 2020” (internet freedom).
The ringleader, Yiannopoulos — who’s known for disparaging transgender people, feminists, and Muslims, among others — resigned from Breitbart News in February amid backlash against his comments appearing to condone pedophilia.
“Free Speech Week” is expected to trigger protests and possibly violence, and will force the university to spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, trying to make sure no one gets hurt. It comes as public universities grapple with whether to welcome alt-right personalities, particularly in the wake of the deadly far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month that began with khaki-clad white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us” as they marched through the campus of the University of Virginia.
What the movement wants
In Charlottesville, the flashpoint of the white nationalist protest was a statue of Robert E. Lee. In Berkeley, “Free Speech Week” will take place on the same campus where students in the 1960s fought for the right to protest the Vietnam War and organize politically on campus.
“We are showing up the hypocrisy of Berkeley.”
“We are showing up the hypocrisy of Berkeley, which prides itself on being the home of the ‘free speech movement,’” Geller said in an email to VICE News. “Now we know they meant free speech only for the left. If people are upset about it, it is because they are insecure authoritarians who aren’t intelligent enough to deal rationally with dissenting ideas.”
Experts say that key figures in the increasingly varied and nuanced far-right — nationalist, alt-right, alt-lite, anti-globalist, white supremacist — are using the free speech issue as a way to rally their base and recruit supporters.
“I think there is a renewed effort by provocateurs on the right to claim the mantle of free speech defenders, and position themselves as free speech martyrs,” said Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “Nothing pleases them more and galvanizes their supporters more than when they can present themselves as victims of a liberal or left-wing establishment.”
And yet some argue that universities themselves are partly to blame for the fact that far-right personalities have fixated on American college campuses.
“Universities have done an abysmal job of getting legitimate conservative speakers onto campuses,” said Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism. “Universities need to embrace ideological diversity as much as they embrace demographic diversity. What they’re doing instead is killing the ability for students to learn critical analysis of positions they disagree with.”
That has helped fuel the victim narrative that far-right individuals promote, Levin said, and has transformed campuses into ideological powder kegs.
“Universities need to embrace ideological diversity as much as they embrace demographic diversity.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit that promotes free speech, tracks “disinvitation attempts” against invitees, from lecturers to commencement speakers. It found 43 such attempts for both right- and left-leaning speakers in 2016 — 12 of which involved Yiannopoulos.
Given Berkeley’s history as a symbol of the American free speech movement, the university is taking pains to not censor student events, and this one has a sponsor in students on campus who are using it in part to help launch a conservative newspaper, the Berkeley Patriot.
Pranav Jandhyala, a member of the College Republicans and one of the Patriot’s editors, said the students don’t necessarily agree with Yiannopoulos and his cohorts, but their goal is to foster an environment on campus that is more tolerant of divergent views. “The way to heal this nation and detoxify politics is to take this libertarian philosophy toward free speech,” he said, before paraphrasing Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. “Sunlight’s the best disinfectant.”
Opponents on campus argue giving personalities like Yiannopoulos a platform in the name of free speech just serves to legitimize their views. “Just because you can go out there and say all these terrible things — you have the right to do that, you you can say whatever you want — but it doesn’t mean you should,” said Berkeley Democrats President Caiden Nason. “And I think that is something that the right doesn’t really understand at the moment.”
Nason said he’s working with other student groups to plan counterprogramming during what he alternately dubbed “hate-speech apologist week.”
It’s not the first time Yiannopoulos has created a stir at Berkeley. In February, less than two weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, his scheduled speaking appearance drew hordes of counterprotesters, including about 150 black-clad antifa, some of whom hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks at police. The event was canceled two hours before it was set to begin, and the damage reportedly cost the university $100,000.
Two months later, UC Berkeley students invited far-right authors David Horowitz and Ann Coulter to speak, but their events were also canceled due to security concerns. Jandhyala sees “Free Speech Week” as an opportunity to right those perceived wrongs.
“This event is really just about discourse,” he said. “The reason that motivated our invitation of Milo again wasn’t because he’s provocative or controversial and because we want to stir shit. It’s because we generally want a very symbolic way for the Berkeley community to actually deal with speech that they say they hate, that they regard as hate speech, in the proper manner.”
How Americans think about free speech
Free speech is something that the majority of Americans support; according to a Reuters/Ipsos/UVA poll from earlier this month, 59 percent of respondents said that political correctness threatens their personal liberty and freedom to speak their mind.
And yet 61 percent of Democrat students favor excluding certain types of offensive speech from campuses in order to create a healthy learning environment for all, compared to 47 percent of Republican students, according to a survey of 1,500 college students across the country, released Monday by a Brookings Institution senior fellow.
Besides offering alternatives to “Free Speech Week,” there isn’t a whole lot that Nason and his peers can do to prevent “hate speech,” no matter how offensive they find it. In June, the Supreme Court unanimously reaffirmed that “hate speech” — speech that attacks people or groups on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion and so on — is protected under the First Amendment.
Even with Berkeley’s commitment to hosting the event, Chancellor Carol T. Christ wonders how far the university’s financial commitment should go. “It’s certainly not sustainable,” she told The Los Angeles Times. “As I understand it, it’s an unsettled question in the law – what is a reasonable level of expense for an institution to protect the right of free speech? I feel it’s very important. That’s why I’ve committed this money. I believe in the current state of the law; this is our obligation.”
The event will put big costs on Berkeley
Berkeley said it spent roughly $600,000 on security for a recent speaking appearance by conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro, which drew a ticketed audience of 600-700, and about 1,000 protesters. Both the event and the protest were fairly peaceful; there were nine arrests and no injuries. A UC Berkeley spokesperson declined to estimate the cost of putting on the four-day “free speech” event but said it would be “far in excess of what we spent on the Shapiro event.”
After Charlottesville, some universities started pushing back on speaking requests from Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who organized the deadly rally that began with young men holding dimestore tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us” around the statue of Robert E. Lee on the University of Virginia campus.
But some of those schools soon encountered legal hurdles. Lawyers representing Spencer sued Michigan State University, and threatened legal action against the University of Florida, which ultimately agreed to reschedule his appearance to Oct. 19. Earlier this year, Auburn University, in Alabama, shelled out a $29,000 settlement after denying Spencer the opportunity to speak.
For their part, the Patriot and other organizers are doing pre-emptive damage control. Jandhyala said they entered into a verbal contract with Yiannopoulos barring him from targeting individual students during the four-day event. Their concern stemmed from an incident last December when Yiannopoulos verbally attacked a transgender student while speaking at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and from rumors that he planned to identify undocumented students during his cancelled Berkeley appearance in February. Yiannopoulos denied the rumors.
Jandhyala said the expected crowds of protesters are as important to the cause of free speech as the event itself. “Whether it’s the KKK, actual Nazis, no matter how terrible these people are, the second you create a barrier and say you can’t speak, you’re too offensive, they only grow strong,” Jandhyala said. “They only benefit from that.”