A University of California, Berkeley report on free speech questions the motives of controversial speakers who sparked violent campus clashes last year, saying they were part of a “coordinated campaign“ to make college campuses appear intolerant of conservative views.
The assertion drew an “actual lol!” from Milo Yiannopoulos, who’s referenced in the report and called its authors “Marxist thugs … criticizing people they don’t listen to, books they haven’t read and arguments they don’t understand.“
The report released this week is the culmination of months of work by a university commission asked to study free speech on a campus that was roiled last year by disputes over speakers, resulting in lawsuits and condemnation from conservatives. That included President Donald Trump, who tweeted: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech ... NO FEDERAL FUNDS?“ Clashes over controversial speakers erupted on college campuses across the country in 2017, but those at Berkeley were among the most violent and costly.
“Contrary to a currently popular narrative, Berkeley remains a tolerant campus,” the report contends, pointing to a survey of incoming freshman last fall. It found three-quarters of them agree that “the University has the responsibility to provide equal access to safe and secure venues for guest speakers of all viewpoints — even if the ideas are found offensive by some or conflict with the values held by the UC Berkeley community.”
The report says that all of last year’s most disruptive events, including highly publicized events featuring Yiannopoulos and commentator Ann Coulter, were sponsored by “very small groups of students working closely with outside organizations.“
“Although those speakers had every right to speak and were entitled to protection, they did not need to be on campus to exercise the right of free speech,” the report says. “Indeed, at least some of the 2017 events at Berkeley can now be seen to be part of a coordinated campaign to organize appearances on American campuses likely to incite a violent reaction, in order to advance a facile narrative that universities are not tolerant of conservative speech.“
The report specifically cites Yiannopoulos and Coulter, who the commission says “expressed little interest in reasoned discussion of contentious issues or in defending or revising their views through argument.“ Coulter could not be reached for comment.
The Berkeley College Republicans, who helped organize events there last year and have sued the school, also could not be reached for comment.
The report continues: “Many Commission members are skeptical of these speakers’ commitment to anything other than the pursuit of wealth and fame through the instigation of anger, fear, and vengefulness in their hard-right constituency. Speech of this kind is hard to defend, especially in light of the acute distress it caused (and was intended to cause) to staff and students, many of whom felt threatened and targeted by the speakers and by the outside groups financing their appearances.“
The commission was made up of Berkeley faculty, students and staff and was chaired by Prudence Carter, dean of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, and R. Jay Wallace, a professor of philosophy.
The report notes that many students and staff felt threatened “not just by the message of the speakers, but by the large police presence required to assure everyone’s safety.“
Yiannopoulos told POLITICO that “no one who has actually attended a Milo talk would say my mission is solely to offend or that I’m an insubstantial purveyor of stunts. I always prefer to give my talk. I care about my subjects. But it gets Berkeley off the hook, doesn’t it?“
“I get that people find it difficult to imagine that a conservative with big ideas might also be a showman, a provocateur and an Instagram thot, but here I am. Deal with it,” Yiannopoulos wrote in an email responding to the report. “As for their lofty dismissal of the obvious reality that conservative speech is relentlessly and systematically suppressed on campuses... actual lol!”
The report points out that conservative commentator Ben Shapiro spoke at Berkeley in 2016 without controversy. But his appearance there last year was met by protests — leading to nine arrests — and the university spent $600,000 on security, according to the report.
What changed? The report blames the “rise of ultra-conservative rhetoric, including white supremacist views and protest marches, legitimized by the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, encouraged far-right and alt-right activists to ‘spike the football‘ at Berkeley. This provoked an at-times violent (and condemnable) response from the extreme left, tearing at the campus’s social fabric.“
The report includes a slew of recommendations for university leaders moving forward, including creating new free speech zones, scrutinizing student organizations more closely and offering counter-programming during controversial events.
Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said in a statement that the commission “wrestled with some of the most important and complex issues facing our campus at this time.“
“The commission’s recommendations are deeply considered and intriguing, and I support them,” she said. “I will work with my leadership team to determine what is feasible for us to carry forward over the course of the next weeks and months.“