Will Political Protest Kill UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Week?

On Thursday, Sept. 14, conservative author and pundit Ben Shapiro came to the University of California, Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall at the invitation of YAF, Young Americans for Freedom.

The invitation sparked controversy on the predominantly liberal campus, and in response to some students’ dissatisfaction with Shapiro’s previous statements, many groups on campus coordinated protests and even threatened acts of violence in opposition.

The university and city security took these threats seriously because of previous riots, most notoriously the February 2017 riot that led to $100,000 in damages, in response to right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech.

On Wednesday, Sept. 13, the campus outlined the security precautions they were taking in an open letter to protect the event attendees and speaker.

University campus spent an estimated $600,000 dollars for event security, charged UC Berkeley YAF a $15,738 security fee to secure the building for the event, set up a barrier to block six buildings surrounding Zellerbach Hall, blocked off pedestrian routes to class the day of the event and even closed the top floor of the auditorium out of fear that protesters would throw chairs at the audience below on the ground level.

In addition, the city overruled the 20-year ban on pepper spray use during demonstrations on Tuesday, Sept. 12, largely in preparation for Shapiro’s talk and in response to other violent altercations at the University earlier this year. While officers may not use pepper spray on nonviolent protesters, the mayor ruled that police could use it to deter violence.

The Actual Speech

Shapiro’s speech focused on his disdain for the current political emphasis on identity politics on both sides, calling out sometimes violent resistance groups like Antifa on the left and white nationalists in the alt-right.

Despite the fact that Shapiro is unabashedly right-wing, he made an effort to appeal and reach across the aisle in his speech and in the question section after, where he invited people on the left who do not agree with his speech to come to the front of the line.

With the security precautions implemented and nine arrests made, Shapiro’s lecture remained peaceful, signalling that the conservative-planned “Free Speech Week” could go on as planned, altercation-free.

Is Freedom of Speech Worth the Cost?

Potential violence in response to invited conservative lecturers has sparked debate over whether or not free speech should prevail despite the potential harms, particularly security costs associated with protecting these speakers.

In the wake of “Free Speech Week,” which is set to run from September 24-27, Berkeley administrators said that they do not have the financial means nor will they pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in security fees to protect conservative invitees like Steven Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos.

Many people questioned how valuable inviting conservative speakers and ideas to campus is if it legitimately threatens students’ wellbeing as well as conservative intentions in the first place.

“The purpose of these provocateurs is not to educate, but to disrupt the status-quo,” wrote Wendy Osofo in an op-ed for The Hill. She asserted that Democrats must counter Republican infiltration into education under the pretense of free speech to start winning elections again.

“Disrupting the status quo is not only a tactic used by Shapiro and Yiannopoulos, but it was also the golden ticket that took Donald J. Trump from 5th Avenue to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave,” she posited.

Others have pointed out the irony in the administration’s statement, considering that Berkeley served as “the birthplace of free speech” in the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement.

Another point of consideration is Shapiro’s ideology. Many protesters claimed he was part of the radical right and that the university shouldn’t support anyone with alt-right, fascist views. But there’s also conservative pushback on the conflation of white supremacists and right-wingers as well.

Mark Thiessen, from the conservative think-tank American Enterprise Institute, characterized Ben Shapiro as a “smart, clever, mainstream conservative.” He pointed out the irony of Antifa’s characterization of the pundit as a white supremacist, considering that Shapiro himself is an Orthodox Jew and was named the number one media target of anti-Semitic hate in 2016 by the Anti-Defamation League.

Despite the fact that the event didn’t end in violence and Shapiro was allowed to speak, Thiessen ultimately feels that the need for such massive security was a victory for Antifa alone.

“Just the threat of neo-Communist violence was enough to force the school to spend more than half-a-million dollars to protect Shapiro and the students who wanted to listen to him,” he wrote.

In the aftermath of the event, Shapiro himself criticized the need for such stringent security for his speech on “personal responsibility and individualism.”

“Discussion never hurt anyone,” wrote Shapiro. “But both the heckler’s veto and the fascistic worldview that fuels it do.”

Despite the fact that the group instigating the violence in Berkeley was left-wing, recent polling suggests that college students on both sides of the political aisle are against broader First Amendment provisions.

According to a Brookings Institute survey, 50 percent of college students agree that shouting over a controversial speaker should be encouraged. Twenty percent agree with violence to stop a lecturer from speaking.

While 20 percent seems like a relatively low proportion, “it’s important to remember that this question is asking about the acceptability of committing violence in order to silence speech. Any number significantly above zero is concerning,” Brookings’ John Villasenor wrote.

When students begin challenging the foundations of the First Amendment and threatening the general welfare of students attempting to engage in a dialogue between both sides with violence, it seems like partisan-fueled hatred has stepped a line.

It will be interesting to see what steps Berkeley takes — or doesn’t take — to prepare and prevent violence for the planned Free Speech Week, and if other colleges and universities follow suit.

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