On Sept. 16, the University of California, Berkeley, public relations team released a statement cancelling Free Speech Week, a planned four-day event featuring prominent conservative speakers.
The PR team claimed that the Berkeley Patriot, the conservative student organization hosting the event, “fell short of what is minimally required by standing policies and standard contracts that apply to every other student organization on the Berkeley campus.”
However, this announced cancellation did not stop conservative speakers from coming to campus and holding rallies.
— Anjali Shrivastava (@anjalii_shrivas) September 24, 2017
Before the scheduled event, right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who made headlines for the Berkeley riot that caused $100,000 in damages surrounding his February lecture, wrote an impassioned Facebook post to inform his followers about a “March for Free Speech through Sunday,” Sept. 24.
“There is a duty imposed on every generation to preserve and protect a nation’s culture, institutions and values built and established by those before us. In this case, preserving American universities as centers of open discourse and discussion. In our own generation this responsibility falls on us,” Yiannopoulos wrote.
To his credit, Yiannopoulos delivered on his promise and came to UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza to chat, take selfies and chant “USA!” with his fans, according to SFGate.
But there’s a price to pay for free speech. Yiannopoulos’ appearance only lasted about 15 minutes, but according to campus spokesman Dan Mogulof, it cost UC Berkeley $800,000 in security.
“It feels like probably the most expensive photo opp in the university’s history,” Mogulof said.
— B. Sakura Cannestra (@SakuCannestra) September 24, 2017
UC Berkeley is already operating under a $110 million deficit and cutting vital services to attempt to save money, but according to the Chicago Tribune, university officials “spent more than $1 million to ensure there would be adequate security for the Free Speech Week events.”
However, as many on the Right pointed out, UC Berkeley is also known as the birthplace of free speech and is interested in holding up that reputation in spite of student organizations that are against the university’s decision to host right-leaning speakers.
But for a university that is already operating under such a large deficit, devoting so much money to a demonstration seems exorbitant to many students.
“The question of which campus speakers warrant security funding is real and challenging,” Colby College English Professor Aaron Hanlon wrote for the New York Times.
— Jonathan Lee Riches (@xxxlawsuitxxx) September 24, 2017
“The escalation of security costs isn’t a response to conservative thought,” he continued. “It is the only way schools can respond to a deliberate right-wing strategy, driven by outside groups, to inflict disruptive and deliberately offensive speakers on campuses, and thus bait the Left into outrage.”
In addition to the $800,000 spent on Yiannopoulos’ most recent 15 minutes of fame, UC Berkeley also just spent $600,000 to protect Ben Shapiro’s lecture two weeks ago.
The university’s security spending for these speakers is especially alarming considering many of them pulled out a few days before the event. According to the Atlantic’s Rosie Gray, some of the speakers scheduled to speak at Berkeley hadn’t even been officially confirmed, conservative firebrand Ann Coulter being one of them.
— Ani Vahradyan (@anivahrad) September 24, 2017
Some theorized that the collapse of UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Week was predetermined.
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Chris Quintana reported that Lucian B. Wintrich, a pundit who bailed on the event, “told university spokesman Mogulof that ‘it was known that they didn’t intend to actually go through with it last week, and completely decided on Wednesday.’”
Others think the event’s collapse was an instance of Internet-trolling brought to life.
“Some conservatives are less interested in robust debate than in trolling liberals, while others are simply looking for ‘safe spaces’ of their own,” the Washington Post’s Jeffrey Kidler commented, questioning conservative intentions behind invoking First Amendment Rights.
“The speech that was being ‘freed’ was likely intended to provoke outrage from left-leaning students and faculty, with a lineup of controversial right-wing speakers,” he continued.
Another possible reason: Many students do not want their universities to endorse the actions of prominent Alt-Right figures like Yiannopoulos, especially in light of the harassment caused by Yiannopoulos doxxing — identifying personal information without a person’s consent — two UC Berkeley students he disagreed with politically.
“He lost the right to be on a college campus when he exposed a transgender student to harassment, but clearly lawyers disagree,” wrote David Perry for the Pacific Standard. “I understand the impulse to defend his rights among those concerned with free speech, regardless of his vile messaging — but what if he’s just trolling our consciences?”
But there’s been pushback on that too, with pundits on both sides fed up with the behavior of counter-protesters at these events.
“Yiannopoulos, or anyone else, should be able to give a speech on the steps of Sproul Plaza without the protection of police barricades and 1,000 cops,” noted libertarian-leaning Reason’s Robby Soave. “He couldn’t, and that’s the fault of people who have vowed to shut down everyone, violently if need be, with whom they disagree.”
“We’re doing a poor job of teaching kids the difference [between harassment and free expression], a poor job of teaching them to rise above provocation, to ignore speech they find offensive, or to counter it with more speech,” wrote Robin Abcarian for the LA Times, criticizing the culture that enabled political violence and ultimately necessitated high-security costs.
“This disconnect has allowed an intellectual charlatan like Yiannopoulos to build a business model in which he can pose as a victim of political correctness,” she continued. “Don’t let him get away with it.”
Ideologically, allowing conservative speakers to speak is a more simple debate between free speech absolutism and political correctness.
In practice, though, universities like UC Berkeley need to decide whether ensuring the protection of short, controversial events is really worth the astronomical costs behind tight security measures, and whether or not opinions like Yiannopoulos’ deserve to be sponsored by the university.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Aaron Hanlon’s title. He is a Professor at Colby College, not a student at UC Berkeley.