The Milo “Free Speech” Nightmare Sputters to an End

BY HANK REICHMAN

By now regular readers of this blog are probably aware that the long-floundering “Free Speech Week” that bigot-provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was allegedly “organizing” at the University of California at Berkeley this week has been canceled.  Ever the blustering bozo, Milo, however, has vowed to speak on campus tomorrow (Sunday) no matter what.

“We are going to be hosting an event come hell or high water (Sunday),” Yiannopoulos said in video stream from a California hotel room via Facebook.  “We will be expressing our constitutional rights to free speech, free expression, on Sproul Plaza, the home of the Free Speech Movement, tomorrow as planned, with or without student help, with or without the cooperation of UC Berkeley itself. The administration has done everything in its power to crush its own students’ aspirations. UC Berkeley has a deservedly poor reputation for free speech.”

“Free Speech Week,” a joint effort between a small new student organization, the Berkeley Patriot, and Yiannopoulos, was set to take place from September 24-27, featuring a variety of conservative speakers, including David Horowitz and Yiannopoulos himself.  But today both the university and the student group announced, as many predicted, that the events were canceled.

Pranav Jandhyala, a student leader of Berkeley Patriot, said his vision for the event had been one of peaceful civil discourse on both political sides. The event originally had included liberal speakers, he claimed, but they started dropping out because “no liberal would come to an event that was automatically going to be perceived as hateful, just because of Milo.”

“We’ve gotten death threats. like, ‘If we see you on Sproul Plaza, we’ll gang up on you and attack you. There’s no way this speech will happen,’” Jandhyala said Saturday.

University spokesperson Dan Mogulof, however, said, “We are confident that UCPD would have had the necessary resources in place to provide security for the events.”

“It is extremely unfortunate that this announcement was made at the last minute, even as the university was in the process of spending significant sums of money and preparing for substantial disruption of campus life in order to provide the needed security for these events,” Mogulof said of the cancellation.  Mogulof added that despite the Berkeley Patriot’s allegations that it did not have an indoor venue to host its speakers for Free Speech Week, given that it lost both Zellerbach and Wheeler halls, the campus had confirmed Anna Head Alumnae Hall as a venue, which the Berkeley Patriot “voluntarily chose to cancel” Tuesday.  Mogulof emphasized that, as evidenced by the peaceful facilitation of Ben Shapiro’s appearance September 14, the campus is “deeply committed to freedom of speech.”

The university had prepared to spend more than $1 million on security for the events, according to campus officials.  The campus has already incurred at least $1.4 million in security costs since February, when Yiannopoulos’ last appearance sparked violent protests. The university spent $200,000 on security for that event, $600,000 for Ann Coulter, whose event ultimately was canceled, and an estimated $600,000 for the talk last week by Shapiro, according to the university.

“Free Speech Week” had been unraveling for at least a week, if not more.  For weeks, headline speakers such as former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and conservative commentator Coulter remained unconfirmed. Many others who were initially slated to appear, such as academic Charles Murray, commentator Heather Mac Donald, fired Google engineer James Damore, Blackwater founder Erik Prince and writer Lucian Wintrich, either dropped out or never confirmed their intention to come. “I never planned to speak [at Free Speech Week],” Coulter said on Friday. “My speakers bureau never booked me to speak at Berkeley. No contract for me to speak existed.”

The only speakers remaining this morning, other than Yiannopoulos, were Mike Cernovich and Pamela Geller. Cernovich, Geller and Yiannopoulos held a press conference saying that the university had “silenced” them by making them jump through bureaucratic hoops.

A previously scheduled counter-demonstration in Berkeley this afternoon went forward as planned with about 500 participants. That mostly subdued event, dubbed “No Hate in the Bay: March Against White Supremacy,” was sponsored by an array of groups including labor unions and human rights organizations.

On Tuesday, the Berkeley Patriot filed a civil rights complaint against UC Berkeley administration for allegedly suppressing the organization’s First Amendment rights through practices of “de facto viewpoint discrimination.”  “The situation at UC Berkeley has become downright physically dangerous this past year for conservative students who merely wish to exercise their God given rights to freedom of speech and association that are enshrined in the Constitution,” alleged Marguerite Melo, one of the attorneys representing the Berkeley Patriot, in the complaint filed with the Justice Department.

Melo also alleged that the campus was communicating with the Berkeley Patriot through the press rather than directly communicating with the publication about the event.

Yiannopoulos read out a statement from Berkeley Patriot editor-in-chief Mike Wright at this morning’s press conference, which alleged that after the group filed its complaint, the campus administration began an “extensive, coordinated campaign of harassment and retaliation” against its members in the form of an investigation into hate speech charges. He compared the campus’s alleged threats to the Salem witch trials.

Wright also said in his statement that the Berkeley Patriot is in the process of filing a second complaint through the Department of Justice against campus administration.  “These threats to the academic freedom and futures of our members are too much to bear,” Wright said in his statement. “Accordingly, we must regretfully withdraw our sponsorship.”

During the press conference, Yiannopoulos announced that he will be endowing the Berkeley Patriot with $10,000 — which he is calling the Mario Savio Free Speech Fund — to help “undo some of the damage done” to the student group’s reputation and help get its publication started.  “It is my view that Berkeley needs a strong, populous, free speech-loving conservative publication,” Yiannopoulos said at the conference. “(The fund will) give the Berkeley Patriot a really solid footing for the next few years.”

Mogulof vehemently denied that the university had opened an investigation into Berkeley Patriot.  The administration is, however, investigating recent incidents in which undocumented students and alleged “terrorist supporters” have been targeted.  Phrases written in chalk such as “Illegals, ICE is coming” and “They’re called Dreamers for a reason” were spotted on Sproul Plaza late Monday night, the Daily Californian reported.  The graffiti also included phrases such as “Build a wall, deport them all,” “ANTIFAGS” and “Abortion is genocide.”  Chalking on UC Berkeley property is not allowed at any time and is a violation of campus policy.  “These messages go against everything we stand for as a community,” campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff said. “Every member of our community should be treated with respect and should feel safe and valued here.”

On Thursday, several posters were sighted near Barrows Hall on campus from the David Horowitz Freedom Center alleging that some members of the campus community were terrorist supporters. The posters listed 13 members of the campus community by name, including pictures of two.  Several of those listed have been vocal in the past about their support for Palestinian rights and the BDS movement.  The David Horowitz Freedom Center also announced Thursday that UC Berkeley ranked first in its report of the “Top Ten Worst Schools that Support Terrorists,” according to a press release from the center.  Horowitz was scheduled to appear as part of Milo’s “Free Speech Week.”

The posters were quickly removed by university employees.  In a campuswide email, Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ called the postings “cowardly.”  “Berkeley is better than what these incidents reflect,” Christ said in her email.  Alumnus David McCleary and graduate student Kumars Salehi, both of whom were featured on the posters, said they were dissatisfied with the campus’s response, citing similar past instances of hate posters on campus.  Salehi said he believed the presence of the posters on campus was a tactic to generate attention for “Free Speech Week.”  He also noted that several people named on the posters are no longer active on campus.

Many opponents of Yiannoopoulos’s appearance at Berkeley had argued that his engagement was about more than speech; that his intent was to harass individual students.  That charge gained credibility on Wednesday when Yiannopoulos publicly posted the photos and identifying information of student government senator Juniperangelica Cordova-Goff and doctoral student Adam Jadhav, spurring online harassment from Milo’s supporters.

Yiannopoulos posted a screenshot of one of Cordova-Goff’s Facebook posts on his Instagram account after she condemned the chalk graffiti.  Yiannopoulos also published a photo of Jadhav after Jadhav notified his political ecology students that Tuesday’s class would be cancelled for “Free Speech Week,” in compliance with a boycott encouraged by many faculty members.

Student Senator Hani Hussein also reported Islamophobic and xenophobic comments being posted on her official Facebook page.   She called on campus administration to take responsibility for the incidents.  Cordova-Goff also said in a statement that the harassment “could have been, and should have been, prevented by the university itself.”

“The campus completely condemns … assaulting words or deeds that target any member of our community. This is simply intolerable,” Mogulof responded.  “We urge anyone who either has been targeted or has witnessed what they believe to be unlawful activity to immediately contact the police department.”

In the week of the debacle that “Free Speech Week” became, Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, who previously declared this “free speech year” at the university, called for a reexamination of the school’s guest speaker and student organization policies.  Expressing “deep regret” for the stress these events had caused for many in the campus community, Christ reiterated in a campus-wide email that “We are under the legal obligation to protect free speech.” However, she continued, “We should explore whether there should be a limit to the number of events a student group can schedule in a row, whether we should have an annual budget for security costs, and whether criteria for status as a student organization should be reviewed.”

During a 25th anniversary celebration of Alianza, a campus Chicanx/Latinx staff organization, on Wednesday, Christ acknowledged the “uncertainty and peril” that undocumented students face and how Free Speech Week could affect vulnerable communities.  “Once Free Speech Week ends, we have to come together as a community and think hard about our policies,” she said.

Thinking hard about campus free speech policies and their abuse is a task that administrators and faculty everywhere should take up.  As my previous posts on outside speakers suggest, the answers may not be simple.  But clearly there is much to learn from Berkeley’s unpleasant experience.

Oh, and during his Facebook stream this morning Yiannopoulos announced four upcoming speaking dates for his planned seven-month “Troll Academy” tour across the U.S.  Three of them are in California, on October 25 at Cal State Bakersfield, October 29 at San Diego State and October 31 at Cal State Fullerton.  As my grandmother used to say, “Oy gevalt!”


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3 thoughts on “The Milo “Free Speech” Nightmare Sputters to an End

  1. $1 million seems like a lot to spend for this event. When I was a student our group had to scrounge for a $1000 speakers fee. Who will pay this? The taxpayer? The Students?

    That Horowitz of the academic blacklist is one of the event’s speakers makes me question the group’s seriousness about free speech.

  2. Pingback: Milo Appears (But Doesn’t Speak) in Berkeley at $53,333.33/Minute | ACADEME BLOG

  3. Pingback: Free Speech Then and Now: The FSM and the Alt-Right on Campus | ACADEME BLOG

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