UC Berkeley staff members express safety concerns for ‘Free Speech Week’

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Emilia Bulfone/File

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UC Berkeley faculty members circulated a letter Wednesday morning calling for campus and the Berkeley community to boycott the “alt-right presence” by canceling all classes and campus activities for the duration of “Free Speech Week.”

The letter, signed by about 130 campus staff members, was written by seven professors from the African American studies, ethnic studies, gender and women’s studies and film departments. These departments house populations of students targeted by the “alt-right,” according to Leigh Raiford, campus African American studies professor and co-author of the letter.

“For me as a professor to ask those students to walk across Sproul Plaza, it is unethical,” Michael Cohen, campus professor of African American studies and one of the letter’s co-authors, said. “I’m (asking) my students to choose between their physical and mental safety for a grade.”

Several professors reiterated that a police presence on campus and the violence from past protests, such as Milo Yiannopoulos’s canceled campus event, pose a potential threat to students’ physical well-being. They added that this creates an unsafe learning environment that students should not be compelled to attend.

“We’re not safe, frankly,” Raiford said. “Part of this (boycott) is enabling the students who don’t feel comfortable for a variety of reasons. …  (It) gives them the opportunity to refuse to participate in this.”

Some professors also said it is not only students who are in danger. Raiford said that during the riots surrounding Yiannopoulos’s event, the African American studies department closed early so that staff could get home safely.

The letter also calls to shut down campus departments and buildings and let staff stay home.

“This is a workplace for hundreds of people,” Jeffrey Skoller, campus film and media professor and co-author of the letter said. “The idea that they would have to come and subject themselves to this kind of potential violence is not fair, it’s not safe.”

Skoller alleged that the campus administration refused to accommodate staff members’ request to relocate the event. He said that this left them with little choice other than to boycott the campus during the events.

“Part of our motivation is that the administration has not made choices that are respectful of the people who study and work here,” Raiford said.

Some campus departments are also being affected by “Free Speech Week.” The anthropology department rescheduled a guest lecture by Anna Tsing for Sept. 25 because of security concerns. Uncertainty surrounding the events has also pushed gender and women’s studies professor Barbara Barnes to move an in-class exam to online.

Chancellor’s professor of gender and women’s studies Charis Thompson said she was holding classes remotely and boycotting campus to be fair to students at risk.  

In response to the petition, campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof said that decisions regarding classes and buildings are up to the faculty. He emphasized that the campus administration was attempting to provide information and advice regarding the upcoming schedule, although that schedule might change.

Mogulof added that the Berkeley Patriot, a campus conservative newspaper that is hosting the incoming speakers, has so far neglected to complete essential steps, such as confirming a list of speakers, contacting police, securing contracts and providing payments to indoor venues.

According to Mogulof, if this information is not provided soon, it is possible that the schedule for “Free Speech Week” could change.

Raiford said she hopes the events will be canceled. She said she believes that the opinions of the invited speakers are intellectually discredited and do not contribute to the “intellectual mission of the university” in any significant way.

According to Skoller, however, the purpose of the petition remains aimed at the safety of campus students.

“There are a lot of students in a lot of different situations … so we felt that boycotting and canceling classes was one of the few things we could do,” Skoller said. “The issue that we’re talking about is the issue of safety for the very diverse student body and community that we have here.”

Contact Elena Aguirre at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @eaguirreDC.