Whose Free Speech Is UC Berkeley Protecting?


Recently installed University of California at Berkeley (UCB) Chancellor Carol Christ has proclaimed this to be the campus’s “free speech year.”  As part of that effort Christ has announced that the infamous bigot-provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, whose talk at Berkeley was canceled February 1 in the face of violent protests, would return to campus later this month.  In April Milo announced on Facebook that his return would span several days, called “Milo’s Free Speech Week.”  He said he intends to hold talks, rallies and parties, “all in the name of free expression and the First Amendment.”

“We will stand united against the ‘progressive’ Left,” Yiannopoulos said in his post. “Free speech belongs to everyone — not just the spoilt brats of the academy.”  He added that each day of Milo’s Free Speech Week will be “dedicated to a different enemy of free speech, including feminism, Black Lives Matter and Islam.”  Last month it was announced that Ann Coulter, who along with the Berkeley College Republicans filed suit against the university after administrators declined to schedule her campus talk at the date and time they demanded, would join Milo’s week.

As a public university that permits student organizations to invite guest speakers, UCB cannot and should not engage in viewpoint discrimination and must provide reasonable protections against those who would exercise the “heckler’s veto.”  Hence, Christ’s emailed declaration to the campus that “The university has the responsibility to provide safety and security for its community and guests, and we will invest the necessary resources to achieve that goal.”

Apparently, however, this responsibility extends to denying the free speech rights of others, in this case the faculty itself.  On September 8, members of Berkeley’s Anthropology Department, joined by colleagues from other disciplines, sent the following letter to Christ (to see signatories go here).  It speaks for itself:

Dear Chancellor Christ,

We write with dismay to inform you that a lecture scheduled for September 25 by Dr. Anna Tsing, Professor of Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz and one of the foremost thinkers of our field, has been cancelled because it coincides with Milo Yiannopoulos’ talk on our campus. Dr. Tsing’s talk was sponsored by the Department of Anthropology as this year’s Annual Distinguished Lecture, scheduled many months in advance, and was to be held at the Morrison Library. The library administration informed the Department just this past week that, due to safety concerns around Milo Yiannopoulos’ presence on campus, the Department would either need to reschedule Dr. Tsing’s talk, move the location of the talk (this is impossible with only a few weeks notice), or pay for additional security. The Department has chosen to reschedule the talk for November. We are thankful that Dr. Tsing graciously rearranged her schedule for this last-minute change, allowing the established academic institution of the annual lecture to continue, but it means that she will no longer be able to meet with UC Berkeley graduate students before her talk as she had originally planned to do.

While we understand the library administration’s concern for the safety and security of people on campus, we are deeply troubled by the fact that the university is willing to prioritize a vitriolic white supremacist speaker, who seeks to disrupt academic life through his performance, over and above a renowned scholar and thinker committed to thoughtful scholarly engagement. If this “Year of Free Speech” is about giving an equal platform to all speakers, it would seem that it has already failed. Hate speech has taken precedence over academic discourse. This is perhaps appropriate for a concert venue but not, we maintain, for a university. We note that Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Paul Alivisatos stated, in a recent e-mail regarding Ben Shapiro’s campus visit, that “our commitment to the principles of community mandates that all students, faculty, and staff be able to be present on campus, engaging in their regular academic activities without fear.” Our regular academic activities have been curtailed to accommodate Milo Yiannopoulos, and thus the university administration has not honored its own stated commitment to the principles of community.

We offer this as a stark reminder of what precisely is at stake in vague and abstract claims of “free speech.” What is at stake is the very value of the scholarly discourse we offer to our students and to the world. Last semester it became quite clear that the university administration prioritizes “free speech” ideals in the most general terms over the physical bodies and livelihoods of our students. This semester, at a moment of unprecedented vulnerability for our undocumented students, Yiannopoulos is again being offered a platform and a microphone for his vitriolic hate speech that not only denigrates these students but jeopardizes their very existence in this campus community, in this nation, and on this earth. Before his planned speech last year, Yiannopoulos announced that he would divulge the names of undocumented students, knowing full well that this would put them in danger of personal attacks and deportation. During other campus visits he has directly bullied and threatened individual students; in the case of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, a student was forced to leave the university due to the persistent and egregious harassment she suffered following Yiannopoulos’ targeting of her during his performance.

It is this brand of hateful speech and the noxious actions it gives rise to that are currently being prioritized over dialogue and debate with an invited scholar who had planned to visit our campus to discuss her work. We urge you to think very carefully about the lives you are risking in giving white supremacists an even larger platform than they already have. We urge you to consider that, in giving this platform so freely to white supremacists, you take it away from those who engage in thoughtful, compassionate, and respectful scholarly discourse by actively threatening the spaces available to them for such engagements.

[UPDATE, 9/24/17: See correction in comments below from the University Librarian]

Somehow I doubt that those know-it-all op-ed columnists and self-proclaimed “free speech warriors” who falsely claimed that UCB had “banned” Ann Coulter by seeking to reschedule her speech will protest as loudly now against the rescheduling of Professor Tsing’s talk.  I believe, albeit reluctantly, that even Yiannoupoulos should have the right to speak on campus.  But his right to speak should not and must not become a rationale for restricting the rights of others, including those who wish to protest his despicable message.  That it would now become a rationale for restricting even legitimate academic speech — speech, unlike that of Milo, that is central to the university’s declared mission of advancing knowledge — should be seen as a scandal far more troubling than the manufactured and over-hyped campus “free speech crisis” (see my series on “Outside Speakers and Academic Freedom“) that has become a mindless obsession of the chattering class.

12 thoughts on “Whose Free Speech Is UC Berkeley Protecting?

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  5. I’d like to correct rather significant errors in the article above, and in the quoted letter to Chancellor Christ. Before I do, let me note that when I pointed out the errors to the first author of the letter, and to the Anthropology Department chair, they agreed that they were errors, and corrected the online version of the letter, and sent the corrections to Chancellor Christ. It would be lovely if the author of this blog post made corresponding corrections.

    The errors are in the first paragraph: The University Library did not inform the Anthropology Department of any of the three things asserted; it did not say that the it would “need to reschedule”, nor move to another location, nor pay for additional security. The Library suggested that due to security concerns (our location is open to the public and in a well-known location near where the high-risk protests were scheduled) the department might wish to consider rescheduling or moving to another location (there was no mention of a security fee whatsoever). The Library made clear that if Anthropology wished to continue with its plans, it would be accommodated — we were simply notifying them so they were aware there was risk. The Anthropology Department chose to reschedule (not cancel) the talk to another date. (As the University Librarian, I have first-hand knowledge of these facts.)

    • Thank you for this correction. As a long-time user and supporter of Berkeley’s libraries I am relieved and pleased to hear that the Library’s role was not as it was first reported. That said, the fact remains that a serious academic talk was rescheduled to accommodate the now-defunct “Free Speech Week,” no matter where responsibility for that unfortunate outcome should rest.

      • Thanks for acknowledging and noting the correction. And you are quite right to point out that the correction does not change the main point of your column — I don’t disagree with that.

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