Conservative writer Ben Shapiro will speak at Cal’s Zellerbach Hall, which has about 2,700 seats. Photo: Cal Performances

A controversial conservative speaker could take the stage at Zellerbach Hall this fall, an achievement for the Berkeley College Republicans (BCR), who invited Ben Shapiro to campus in part to test UC Berkeley’s commitment to free speech.

The student group invited the conservative writer in July, and requested a campus venue that could hold 500 people for the evening on Sept. 14. The administration initially said it could not find a place that met the group’s specifications, but soon back-tracked, saying Cal would foot the bill so Shapiro could come speak at a venue that normally has a fee.

At a press conference Tuesday, new UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said the administration ultimately decided to offer Zellerbach, which has about 2,000 seats in its auditorium.

“We wound up paying for it,” she said after the press conference. “We just think it’s so important for them to hold this event.”

It would cost $12,409 to reserve and staff a 500-person event at the performance venue, said Cal spokesman Dan Mogulof. With 1,000 attendees it would cost $13,274, he said. BCR would still be responsible for a covering the cost of security.

The Berkeley College Republicans released a statement Tuesday evening, saying all is not said and done. They consider the proposed security costs — ranging from around $6,000 for 500 people to $9,000 for 1,000 people, according to UC Berkeley — an “unconstitutional tax on speech.”

“It would not make sense to host Mr. Shapiro in nearly an empty room so we are exploring the options of heavy fundraising or selecting a smaller venue,” BCR spokesman Naweed Tahmas said Wednesday.

The tensions of last year continue

Though the new chancellor said the university does not intend to keep covering the cost of the College Republicans’ events, the decision to offer Zellerbach marks a change in the university’s treatment of the student group.

Tensions between Cal and the College Republicans flared up in the aftermath of far-right speaker Milo Yiannopoulos’ planned anti-illegal immigration talk on campus, which was canceled when masses of protesters descended on UC Berkeley, destroying property and in some cases hitting people with sticks. When the College Republicans, who invited Yiannopoulos to campus, tried to bring in other controversial speakers, including Ann Coulter, later in the spring, Cal placed restrictions on when and where they could speak, to protect students safety, administrators said.

The College Republicans responded with a lawsuit, alleging that the university suppressed their freedom of speech.

Cal maintains that its actions last year were legal and reasonable, in part because the College Republicans did not follow expected protocol when they invited speakers. An interim events policy, attempting to clarify the process, went into effect this week.

In anticipation of the Shapiro event, Christ said during the press conference, the university is “working very hard on the security arrangements.” She said the campus learned during the Yiannopoulos fall-out that a far greater police presence is required.

The university will also host a series of talks and events about free speech leading up to the Shapiro appearance, in hopes of addressing some of the concerns around both the university’s actions and the effects of controversial speakers on the student body. While the university values free speech, she said Tuesday, “the values can conflict with our values of inclusive community,” Christ said.

The events at UC Berkeley mirror — and in part prompted — political, and often literal, battles being played out in the city and in other parts of the country. In the months after the Milo event, protesters on the right, ranging from libertarians to white supremacists, held multiple rallies in Berkeley, in the name of free speech. Twice they were met by Antifa and other far-left counter-demonstrators, who say hate speech must be forcefully squashed, and violence ensued between the groups.

Right-wing protesters and counter-demonstrators plan to come back to Berkeley’s Civic Center Park on Sunday, Aug. 27. A white supremacist march that left a counter-protester dead in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend has raised concerns and questions about how the political battles will continue to develop in Berkeley and how the city, university and law enforcement — who were criticized for laying low during previous protests — will respond.

This story was updated as new information became available. 

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...