In a new report, the UC Berkeley Commission on Free Speech said Milo Yiannopoulos and other speakers who came to Cal in 2017 were part of a coordinated effort to undermine universities. Photo: Roger Jones

Why did some students host a series of conservative and far-right speakers at UC Berkeley in 2017? Why did the left and far-left, after ignoring similar events in the past, respond with outrage and, in some cases, violence?

“Our conclusion,” wrote the campus’s Commission on Free Speech in a report sent to students Wednesday, “is that the rise of ultra-conservative rhetoric, including white supremacist views and protest marches, legitimized by the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, encouraged far-right and alt-right activists to ‘spike the football’ at Berkeley. This provoked an at-times violent (and condemnable) response from the extreme left, tearing at the campus’s social fabric.”

The commission of faculty, staff and students was assembled by Chancellor Carol Christ in October 2017, toward the end of a tumultuous year at UC Berkeley. The group was charged with analyzing the political clashes that had rocked the campus and recommending new policies and procedures to maintain freedom of expression at Cal while warding off further disruptive and costly events.

The new report includes recommendations on how the campus should finance security at future events, how police presence could be lightened, how professors could educate the campus about the First Amendment, and other steps UC Berkeley community members can take to address ongoing tensions.

However, the commission said UC Berkeley cannot legally prohibit provocative speech, nor should it.

“More than eighty years of First Amendment law would need to be overturned” for the campus to ban speaking events because they could be disruptive or fail to promote discourse, the report said, citing a book by UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky.

But the commission was clear that its members found the content of the events, and the outside speakers and funders involved, a threat to another UC Berkeley commitment — “fostering an inclusive community, especially for those traditionally under-represented.” In the list of recommendations, the report authors explained how they believe UC Berkeley can reduce “the likelihood of disruption from provocative events” and “take steps to avoid harm to the community when such events occur.”

Antifa black bloc demonstrators destroyed UC Berkeley property and engaged in violence in hopes of shutting down Milo Yiannopoulos’s speaking event in February 2017 . Photo: Pete Rosos
Antifa black bloc demonstrators destroyed UC Berkeley property and engaged in violence in hopes of shutting down Milo Yiannopoulos’s speaking event in February 2017 . Photo: Pete Rosos

The chain of speaking engagements and protests began when the Berkeley College Republicans invited far-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos, known for claims such as “feminism is cancer,” to speak at Cal in February 2017. Antifa demonstrators descended on campus, launching explosives and smashing windows, to try to stop him from speaking. They succeeded in canceling the event, but BCR, often with funding and encouragement from the national Young America’s Foundation, invited a string of other controversial speakers to campus in the ensuing months, and sued UC Berkeley for, they said, imposing illegal restrictions on the proposed events.

In some cases the speakers never showed up and, in others, right-wing demonstrators protested and brawled with antifa counter-protesters elsewhere in the city. In one case in September 2017, an event with conservative writer Ben Shapiro was held successfully. After much fanfare, Yiannopoulus returned to campus that month as well, but only spoke for about 30 minutes while most who came to see or protest him were stuck behind a security line. In several cases, the university, with help from the UC Office of the President, shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars — $4 million for all the events in total — to line the campus with police and put up barricades.

The debate and protests at Cal reflected a national conversation and events on campuses around the country. However, the College Republicans and their supporters often said they were targeting Berkeley in particular, to test whether it would honor its legacy as the “birthplace of free speech,” and to expose what they viewed as a hypocritical administration that censored conservatives.

The Commission on Free Speech members wrote that they believed the series of events in 2017 was deliberately orchestrated by outside groups to undermine the university.

“At least some of the 2017 events at Berkeley can now be seen to be part of a coordinated campaign to organize appearances on American campuses likely to incite a violent reaction, in order to advance a facile narrative that universities are not tolerant of conservative speech,” the authors said.

In response to the report, Naweed Tahmas, a Berkeley College Republicans leader, said it was “irresponsible” for the commission to say “there is a right-wing conspiracy to cause riots on college campuses.”

“It is insulting that the commission placed blame on our student organization rather than holding the violent, leftist groups — who riot and threaten to shut down speakers — accountable for their actions,” Naweed wrote in an email to Berkeleyside late Thursday afternoon. “The Commission missed an opportunity to diagnose a campus and academic culture that silently approves of censoring conservative speakers; the report itself seems to be subtly justifying the violent response to our speakers.”

He challenged the report’s assertion that many of the speakers invited have no interest in substantive discourse, and said that should not be basis for excluding a speaker from campus regardless.

Many students and staff told the Commission on Free Speech that they felt scared and “alienated” walking by rows of armed police at UC Berkeley, who were stationed there to respond to potential protests several times in 2017. Photo: Ted Friedman
Many students and staff told the Commission on Free Speech that they felt scared and “alienated” walking by rows of armed police at UC Berkeley, who were stationed there to respond to potential protests several times in 2017. Photo: Ted Friedman

In analyzing the events, the commission conducted interviews, held public meetings and sought input from members of the campus community. Much of the feedback, the report said, referenced the heavy police presence during the protests, which made many students and staff uncomfortable.

Given the violence at Yiannopoulos’s first appearance, and the recent killing of counter-demonstrator Heather Heyer at a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, “the UCPD would have been reckless had it not barricaded Sproul Plaza and invited hundreds of police from other jurisdictions to assist in protecting speakers, the speakers’ audience and demonstrators,” during the Shapiro event, the report said.

The commission recommended that UCPD increase its plainclothes officers, and have students serve as safety monitors who report disturbances to the police.

The report also included recommendations for the administration, faculty and students.

The commission said an additional “free speech zone” could be established, possibly on the Crescent lawn on Oxford Street. In free speech areas, anyone can hold events without pre-registering. Currently upper and lower Sproul Plazas are such zones, but when UC Berkeley barricaded the areas to prepare for some of the 2017 events, other well-used campus buildings and sites were necessarily barred off too.

The commission also suggested the university might schedule alternative simultaneous events to counter controversial speakers.

UC Berkeley might also, as Chemerinsky and co-author Howard Gillman mention in their book, set a bar for the amount of money it is willing to spend on event security, and deny any controversial events after the threshold is reached, the report said.

“The question is: how high would this threshold be?” the authors wrote. They recommended the campus and the UC system ask the state for financial help to promote free speech.

“The Berkeley campus is a lightning rod for free speech issues and therefore carries the burden of protecting the First Amendment for the State of California and for public universities across the nation,” the report explained.

While the 23-person commission, chaired by School of Education Dean Prudence Carter and philosophy professor R. Jay Wallace, was carrying out its charge, the campus remained relatively quiet. There have been no events and demonstrations at last year’s scale in 2018.

“It is impossible to predict whether politically polarizing events will continue to roil the campus; much will depend on the national zeitgeist,” the authors wrote.

The campus has meanwhile changed its policies governing “major events,” aiming to clarify the rules that prompted debate and litigation last year, and preempting similar instances in the future. In its report, the commission called the policy “a considerable achievement.”

However, the commission does not purport to speak for the whole campus, noting that more data is needed on student perceptions of the events of last year and knowledge of free speech rights. Some faculty are working on a survey to gather that information, the report said.

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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,...