Update 2/09/2017: This article has been updated to include additional information from TheBlaze and the events surrounding the cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos’ events at UC Davis, UCLA and UC Santa Barbara.
Since controversial conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos’ visit to campus Feb. 1 and the violent protests that led to the event’s cancellation, various misconceptions have circulated around the campus administration’s ability to cancel the event and the role of students in the protests.
Misconception No. 1: UC Berkeley could have canceled the event
Despite widespread calls for the administration to cancel Yiannopoulos’ event before it was scheduled to start on Feb. 1, the administration could not do so without infringing upon the First Amendment, according to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof.
“The Constitution of the United States does not permit the university to engage in prior restraint of a speaker, even if there is a legitimate concern that the speaker might engage in hateful verbal attacks against individuals,” Mogulof said.
Mogulof said UC Berkeley is bound by the First Amendment because it is a public institution, whereas private universities have the ability to cancel such an event. This was the case at New York University and DePaul University. The NYU administration canceled Yiannopoulos’ scheduled appearance on its campus, and DePaul administrators declined to allow Yiannopoulos back on campus after an inflammatory event.
According to James Wheaton, founder of the First Amendment Project, public universities are able to cancel the appearance of a speaker only if the reason for the cancellation is unrelated to the content of the event, such as concerns about public safety. At UC Davis, for example, the campus’s Republican student club consulted with UC Davis Police Department officers and determined the event was too unsafe to proceed amid a massive protest.
Yiannopoulos canceled his UCLA appearance because the Bruin Republicans, who were sponsoring the event, could not accommodate his requests, according to the Daily Bruin. The UC Santa Barbara College Republicans canceled their event because of scheduling conflicts with Yiannopoulos’ handlers, according to the Daily Nexus. The respective administrations of UCLA and UC Santa Barbara had no say in calling off the events.
The Yiannopoulos event at UC Berkeley was canceled by UCPD about 6 p.m. on Feb. 1 to ensure public safety as a result of the violent demonstration that broke out.
Misconception No. 2: Hate speech is not protected under the First Amendment
Many have characterized Yiannopoulos’ discourse as hate speech and have suggested that hate speech should have been the grounds for an earlier cancellation of his campus visit. Wheaton, however, confirmed that hate speech is protected under the First Amendment.
“The Supreme Court has struck down laws that try to make some kinds of speech unlawful simply because it is ugly or hateful speech,” Wheaton said. “The only place that it has allowed the hate speech ordinances or statutes to continue is where the speech is incident (of) some other unlawful act, and that speech is directed at a specific individual with the intention of causing them demonstrable fright or fear or discomfort.”
Wheaton added that this did not apply to speech aimed at groups of people.
Of the forms of speech not protected under the First Amendment — which include libel, perjury, fraud, obscenity, fighting words and inciting people to imminent violence — campus media studies lecturer William Turner said that although Yiannopoulos’ speech may appear to some as incitement, his speech more closely resembles advocacy.
“The Supreme Court has drawn a sharp distinction between incitement, which is not protected, and advocacy, which is,” Turner said. “It can be advocacy of terrible ideas and it’s still protected.”
Misconception No. 3: Violence and destruction was largely perpetrated by students
Conservative news personality Tomi Lahren was one of many in the national news media who claimed or implied that UC Berkeley students were committing acts of violence and vandalism throughout the protest on campus.
“Turns out, if you disagree with the left, they will burn down their own campus, including trees, which they claim to love,” Lahren said in her TheBlaze segment, “Final Thoughts.”
Despite claims that students had engaged in destruction of the campus, no formal reports have confirmed student involvement in the violent actions that occurred, including the throwing of rocks and bricks at the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union building.
UCPD spokesperson Sgt. Sabrina Reich said in a statement that the protest was declared an unlawful assembly upon the arrival of approximately 150 “black bloc” anarchists — who are not known to be directly affiliated with UC Berkeley — to campus. Before the arrival of the anarchists, students had been engaging in a peaceful protest.
“Obviously, we cannot for certainty (say) what the identities were of the individuals who were part of the ‘black bloc’ group,” Mogulof said, “though it appeared that a substantial number of them … were unfamiliar with the campus.”
One arrest — of a suspect who is not affiliated with the campus — has been made in connection to the protests. UCPD is still investigating the event and working to identify suspects.