Campus sacrifices community safety, intellectual integrity for provocative speakers

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The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights asserts that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Of late, the campus has been subject to accusations in the media that it has systematically oppressed speech that the administration finds offensive. But what we find to be the real conundrum is the battle between peaceful assembly and rhetoric that threatens the safety and civil rights of those assembled, or even seems to incite violence against them.

The department of anthropology at UC Berkeley, of which I am chair, was recently put in the position of having to navigate our right to assemble peacefully on campus while another group was planning for chaos and disorder. The Department of Anthropology at Berkeley is the intellectual home of undergraduate, graduate and faculty persons who are a part of groups explicitly named as targets by the campus outsiders who promised to visit this week.

Each year the department hosts a distinguished speaker to come to our campus for an evening lecture. Our faculty and graduate students anticipate the opportunity to meet and speak with eminent scholars in our field within a relaxed intellectual setting. This year, the event was scheduled for the evening of Sept. 25. Amongst the staff organizing the event, we were worried about the potential for disruption by “Free Speech Week” events, but we hoped to move ahead with our intellectual programming as planned.

Unfortunately, our fears became a reality. Several weeks ago, we were notified by campus event space staff that UCPD warned them of high risks associated with any campus events during Sept. 24-26 because of the Milo Yiannopoulos’ planned appearance. We were advised to consider changing the date, with the alternative being a contingency plan with additional costs to ensure the safety and security of our guests.

At that point, I felt it was our obligation to notify the speaker of the circumstances and, in consultation with them, determine the best route forward. It was decided to reschedule the event for a later date. The change in date will diminish the accessibility of the event, as some members of our community had planned their schedules for months in advance to make it for the original date.

I regret that we had to change the event date. In many ways, I would have been happy to push forward, using the event as an example of peaceful counter-protest demonstrating what a truly open exchange of ideas on a university campus looks like. Yet, in good conscience, how could I hold an event intended to be inclusive when other circumstances on campus could create a climate where some members of my community might feel unsafe to participate? I would be adding to their exclusion by forcing them to trust that the campus would keep them safe from physical harm.

Our graduate students drafted a well-circulated and eloquently written letter to Chancellor Carol Christ challenging the decision to protect hateful speech, a decision that silences peaceful and open discourse vital to the educational experiences of our university’s primary stakeholders — our students.

In further discussions among faculty and students across campus about how to respond to the previously scheduled “Free Speech Week” events, several strategies were proposed. Many in our department supported peaceful counter demonstrations, of the sort that serve to mockingly undermine the despicable messages of the speakers. Others talked about ways to share messages of solidarity as a campus united against ideologies that that seek to divide us.  

Some talked about counter-programing events that could draw like-minded people committed to peaceful speech rooted in open discussion and a willingness to engage in diverse thinking. Still others of our community suggested just ignoring the whole thing and not letting the provocateurs ruffle us.

Even with such events officially canceled, I expect we will see all of these responses over this week, and the year, as such provocations will no doubt continue beyond the boundaries of this week. I am confident that members of the anthropology department will respond in various ways that fit with their personal ethical and moral obligations.

Whatever course of action our members decide upon, what we will not do is sacrifice the dignity and inclusivity of an annual event dear to our standing as an intellectual community just to make a political point. But we do ask the administration to recognize that in addition to the massive financial costs accrued by the campus, we are paying dearly with the safety of our community members and our commitment to our principles for these “free speech” visitors.

Laurie Wilkie is the chair of the UC Berkeley department of anthropology.