UC Berkeley students worry about safety, class disruptions during ‘Free Speech Week’

Deborah Chen/Staff

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Many campus community members have expressed concerns about how “Free Speech Week” will affect their ability to continue their academic studies.

UC Berkeley has been the site of many controversial free speech events recently, leading to large protests and provoking outrage from the community. Some campus students and faculty fear that these events are disrupting classes and threatening their safety.

Conservative speaker Ben Shapiro held an event on campus Thursday, sparking a large protest of about 1,000 people. Milo Yiannopoulos, whose previous event in February was canceled due to violent protests, is now scheduled to return to campus for Free Speech Week from Sept. 24-27. Several provocative speakers are planning to attend the events, including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and conservative author Ann Coulter.

“I think what the school is trying to do is nice to show that everybody really does have free speech but, at the same time, I’m paying a lot of money to be coming here,” said campus freshman Jasmine Vielma. “I’m working my ass off to study and stuff, so when I have to be scared of coming onto campus or when I have to miss a class that I have to pay for because of something that I’m not involved in — it’s kind of unfair.”

Vielma said she was disappointed that her classes and instructors’ office hours were canceled Thursday because of Shapiro’s speech because she wasn’t able to review with her class for her upcoming midterm.

ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President Andrew-Ian Bullitt said he and other ASUC executive officers have been contacted by students concerned for their safety, particularly in classrooms that are located near Sproul Plaza, where many of the events during Free Speech Week are scheduled to take place.

“Students have told me in particular that ‘there would be no way’ that they would be able to study for midterms during the nights before the events took place on campus,” Bullitt said in an email. “They described the national spotlight, as well as presence of extremist groups on both sides as being an extreme distraction from their studies.”

Many ASUC Senators have created a petition for the Administration and Faculty Senate to prioritize students’ physical and psychological safety, according to Bullitt. The petition requests that staff members reschedule all midterms that fall during Free Speech Week and allow students to submit assignments due during that week either online or at a later date. In the petition, the Senators also insisted that classes either be canceled or made available online.

Bullitt said in his email that ASUC Senator Juniperangelica Cordova-Goff has also initiated a safety program to pair students walking around campus to address safety concerns.

“I’m hearing that some students feel unsafe on campus because of the nature of the speakers and the identities that they hold,” said ASUC Student Advocate Jillian Free. “Some students don’t want to come to campus out of protest and demonstration. Some students who don’t have a personal stake for some reason feel unsafe.”

Campus junior Iliana Lopez said that while her classes have not been canceled for Free Speech Week, her legal studies professor did offer an option for students to take an online quiz Sept. 25 in case they do not feel comfortable coming to class.

Associate professor of film and media Jeffrey Skoller, one of the many campus staff members who signed a letter calling for a boycott of classes and campus activities during Free Speech Week, said he is canceling classes because it is one of the only ways he feels he can protect “vulnerable students.”

“We have a whole range of students that feel targeted by these ‘alt-right’ groups and so we have made it clear that they won’t be required to attend class during these times if they’re afraid to come onto campus,” Skoller said.

Contact Cade Johnson at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @cadejohnson98.