‘Free Speech Week’ yielded hate and debate

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The nature and execution of free speech is not a new topic of debate for UC Berkeley, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement in 2014. Now, 53 years later, the student body is once more considering the place for political expression on campus.

The issue resurfaced in February, when Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to campus by the Berkeley College Republicans. Prior to the event, the former Breitbart editor was known to spew racist, homophobic, transphobic and sexist rhetoric.

But Yiannopoulos’ presence on campus was met with resistance, as many pointed to his hateful and aggressive rhetoric. Students petitioned the campus to reconsider allowing the event to take place, arguing for a distinction between free speech and hate speech – the latter being embodied by Yiannopoulos. Campus administration did not cancel the event and, on the day of, it devolved into chaos, traumatically impacting a number of marginalized communities.

Yiannopoulos was the first of many conservative speakers to come to campus this year. Both Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro were invited to speak, although Coulter’s event was ultimately canceled. On the day of Shapiro’s appearance, Upper Sproul Plaza was completely blocked off, and a number of additional police forces were set up on Bancroft Way and Durant Avenue. The closing of Sproul Plaza forced many student resource centers to relocate to other areas of campus. Among these were the Multicultural Community Center and Gender Equity Resource Center. In the end, UC Berkeley paid $600,000 to host Shapiro. Berkeley College Republicans paid $15,738.

On the heels of the events of the spring semester, came September’s “Free Speech Week” at UC Berkeley.

Free Speech Week was an invention of Yiannopoulos. After the deterioration of his event in February, where he eventually did not take the stage, he vowed he would come back to Berkeley. The Berkeley Patriot, a conservative campus paper, invited him to come in September. According to Milo, each day of the week was proposed to be “dedicated to a different enemy of free speech, including feminism, Black Lives Matter and Islam.”

The campus response to this planned event was mixed. Chancellor Carol Christ insisted that the correct course was to allow Free Speech Week to take place. Meanwhile, much of Berkeley’s faculty expressed reservations or outright opposition. More than 200 campus faculty members and more than 100 supporters signed a letter denouncing Free Speech Week. In the letter, they claimed Yiannopoulos was not protected under the First Amendment, saying “We recognize that as a public institution, we are legally bound by the Constitution to allow all viewpoints on campus. However, there are forms of speech that are not protected under the First Amendment. These include speech that presents imminent physical danger and speech that disrupts the university’s mission to educate. Milo, Coulter and Bannon do not come to educate; they and their followers come to humiliate and incite.


Lianne Frick/File

The letter called for three resolutions: cancel classes, close facilities and, for those who chose to hold class, not penalize students for not attending.

The event was plagued by disorganization from the beginning. A number of the listed speakers claimed they had never heard of the event and were not affiliated with Yiannopoulos. In addition to the misinformation surrounding the speakers, it came to light that the Berkeley Patriot missed three deadlines for securing facilities on campus.

In the end, Free Speech Week was cancelled by the Berkeley Patriot — the organization withdrew support of the event. Yiannopoulos came to campus in September anyway without any facilitation from student groups. He spoke to a crowd of about 50 students for 20 minutes before leaving.

The Free Speech Week that never happened still cost the campus $800,000. Even beyond the monetary toll, there was a psychological and emotional toll. Multiple UC Berkeley students were personally harassed online after Yiannopoulos posted their information on his Instagram.

The question of how campus should handle events like these is not an easy one to answer, but the issue is not going away. The question will no doubt follow us into 2018. The conversation around free speech and hate speech and the role both should and do play on campus is one that needs to be had.

Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].