Speakers at a “Free Speech Commission” hearing criticized the heavy police presence during controversial events at Cal. Here, officers patrol outside Sproul Hall on April 27, a day that Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak, but canceled. Photo: Ted Friedman
Speakers at a “Free Speech Commission” hearing criticized the heavy police presence during controversial events at Cal. Here, officers patrol outside Sproul Hall on April 27, a day that Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak, but canceled. Photo: Ted Friedman

At first, it seemed like a meeting all about speech would not, in fact, include any. Most of the UC Berkeley community members at the first public hearing of the Commission on Free Speech had only come to the student senate chambers to watch, they said.

As the Friday morning meeting progressed, however, several UC Berkeley staff members and students ended up sharing their perspectives on the ways the university handled a chain of controversial speaking events, and violence connected to them, over the past year.

The new commission of faculty, staff and students was established by Chancellor Carol Christ to review UC Berkeley’s speaker event policies, and “advise on how UC Berkeley might best align its responsibility for protecting free speech with its values as a community.”

The commission’s first hearing coincided with the release of the university’s new “major events” policy. The policy, amended from an interim version enacted in the fall, lays out the steps student groups must take to bring outside speakers to campus, and aims to clear up confusion. Last spring, an ongoing lawsuit, alleging UC Berkeley stifled conservative speech by placing unfair restrictions on proposed events, challenged the administration’s insistence that it was following policy.

Campus debates over free speech and hate speech began a year ago, on Feb. 1, 2017, when the Berkeley College Republicans brought right-wing incendiary Milo Yiannopoulos to campus to, according to different reports, discuss cultural appropriation or illegal immigration. Black-bloc antifa demonstrators, believing Yiannopoulos planned to “out” undocumented students and engage in hate speech, descended on campus, throwing fireworks, flammables and rocks, breaking windows and physically attacking people.

In following months, conservative students tried to organize other large speaker events, in what they called a test of the campus’s commitment to free speech. Cal placed restrictions on the location and timing of some of the events, citing the likelihood of violence, and those events ultimately did not occur. Administrators allowed other events to go forward, stacking the campus with police and security barriers, and shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so.

At the Friday commission meeting, many speakers criticized the heavy police presence during those events.

A staff member said she “felt like this was my place” when she first came to Cal as an undergraduate from Iran, where she had grown up amid military and police presence and strict curfews. But trying to do her job on campus with armed police outside her building brought back those memories, she said, and “I felt very confined and uncomfortable.”

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, present but not shown, convened a Free Speech Commission to address an ongoing campus debate. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Blake Simons, assistant director of African American Student Development, told the commissioners, “Police doesn’t inherently mean safety.” He recalled walking home one night during “Free Speech Week” on police-lined streets, wishing he could hold his staff ID in his hand in case he was hassled, but being too scared to reach for it in his pocket in case it looked like he was grabbing for a weapon.

“That was the most fear I’ve had in a while,” he said. “It felt like a war zone occupation.”

Other UC Berkeley staff members told the commission that the big speaker events and related protests “took an emotional toll” on staff, making it difficult for them to do their jobs, often making them relocate or cancel meetings with student groups and kick students out of buildings that were closed down.

A student speaker said she and her peers found out about an extensive list of banned items and the redirection of transit lines the morning of an evening appearance by conservative writer Ben Shapiro, not giving them sufficient notice.

Undergraduate Rudra Reddy spoke at the end of the meeting, saying the others who had commented were acting “as if simply expressing our opinions is inherently harmful.” The College Republicans members said, “If free speech itself is not something you can handle, there are many institutions that are fit for you, but a university is not one of them.”

Reddy blamed the inconvenience caused by the speaker events on antifa violence, not conservative students, noting that Shapiro had spoken at Cal during a previous year without incident or heavy security.

A local right-wing activist, who uses the name Tai Decker, spoke as well, telling the commissioners, “I’ve got to say that you guys are disgusting. You can’t rule by feelings…This is the United States of America, not the United Colors of Benneton where everybody has to feel good.” Decker live-streamed the meeting and interrupted other speakers several times.

New policy requires six weeks’ notice for “major events”

The new “major events” policy clarifies rules for student organizations seeking to bring speakers to campus.

A “major event” is defined as one with 300 expected guests, increased from the 200 guests in the interim policy. The policy also requires organizations to give six weeks’ notice to the administration in advance of an event, rather than the initially-proposed eight weeks.

Some critics had said requiring such advanced notice would prevent many groups from hosting events. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz threatened to sue UC Berkley in the fall when the university prohibited a campus group from bringing him because they did not meet the eight-week registration deadline. The law school ultimately successfully offered to host the speaker, as academic departments are not subject to the events policy.

The policy only governs events in facilities students must reserve. Sproul Plaza and the Savio Steps, historic sites of students demonstration and dissent, are exempt.

The new rules clarify the existing policy requiring student organizations to cover the “basic security costs” as determined by UC police, which have ranged from nominal fees to $25,000 when the Dalai Lama came, according to the university. UC Berkeley assumes additional security costs deemed necessary throughout the campus.

Such fees came under fire when the College Republicans were given a $9,000 price tag for the rental of part of Zellerbach Hall during Shapiro’s event. The group’s funder, the national Young America’s Foundation, covered the cost, but said the fee could suppress speech. UC Berkeley has said the fee amounted to only around 1% of what the campus paid for security that day.

While the interim events policy was in place this fall, UC Berkeley received nearly 500 comments and questions, according to the administration, some of which are addressed in an FAQ section online.

Ed. note: This story formerly said the new events policy was partially a product of a lawsuit against UC Berkeley. A campus spokesman said the process to change the policy actually began before the lawsuit was filed.

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,...