Milo Appears (But Doesn’t Speak) in Berkeley at $53,333.33/Minute

BY HANK REICHMAN

Clownish self-promoting bigot Milo Yiannopoulos fulfilled his pledge to speak on Sunday at the University of California at Berkeley campus, despite the cancellation the previous day of his fraudulent “Free Speech Week.”  According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the bigoted bozo blew kisses, signed autographs and took selfies for about 15 minutes on the steps of Sproul Hall, an appearance that cost the university an estimated $800,000, or $53,333.33 per minute, in security costs.

Yiannopoulos had no permit to appear on campus and hence was not authorized to use a sound system.  But any private citizen may walk onto the plaza and speak, a right regularly utilized by all sorts of political advocates, itinerant preachers, and self-promoters, not to mention students.  Nonetheless, aware of Milo’s pledge to appear, the university brought in an “unprecedented” number of police officers from about ten jurisdictions, including the little Kern County city of Taft, hundreds of miles away, as well as police from other University of California and California State University campuses.

According to the Chronicle,

Security included a labyrinth of orange barriers, which prohibited access to Sproul Plaza until shortly before noon, requiring attendees to pass through a single metal detector to enter the area. In the end, only about 150 people in Sproul Plaza saw Yiannopoulos. Hundreds remained outside waiting to get in when he left.

“Our job as a campus and as a police department wasn’t to facilitate this event,” campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof said. “What drove our arrangements and our preparations and our decisions was the safety and security of the public, the campus community and any private citizens that may have come onto Sproul.”

Despite his repeated claims that he was defending free speech, Yiannopoulos didn’t give a speech at all.  Instead, covered by a U.S. flag hoodie and “accompanied by an entourage that included private security, he greeted supporters for several minutes and then started singing the national anthem when protesters began yelling at him, challenging him on his views regarding immigration.  Then, security escorted him from Sproul Plaza while police held back people who tried to follow him.”

For those who still, after all this, claim Yiannopoulos as some sort of free speech hero, the ridiculousness of his much-ballyhooed appearance should be a sobering lesson.  This is not and has never been about freedom of speech, but about the self-promotion of a hateful and largely irrelevant provocateur and huckster.  Through all this the Berkeley campus administration has acted with restraint and patience, perhaps too much so.  Although arguments could be made that university regulations may and perhaps should limit the access of speakers whose campus sponsors lack sufficient credibility or whose message is unrelated to the institution’s educational mission, under current UC policies and most First Amendment legal precedent, Berkeley had little choice but to allow Yiannopoulos to appear and to provide security sufficient to ensure his safety and that of all others on campus.  But for a university to be compelled to spend $800,000 of public monies to facilitate a cheap 15-minute publicity stunt like this far exceeds any meaningful defense of the First Amendment.

In a text Yiannopoulos said he “will be back to Berkeley over and over again, until the university starts treating its conservative students fairly.”  But this is not about how Berkeley treats its students, conservative or not, but how Milo and, sadly, too many other so-called “conservatives” treat the public trust.  And while I’ve previously argued that Milo does have the right to speak on campus, this long ago stopped being about his message or his rights.  $800,000 to allow some jerk to blow kisses to his acolytes is $800,000 too much.  Enough is enough.


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2 thoughts on “Milo Appears (But Doesn’t Speak) in Berkeley at $53,333.33/Minute

  1. So what is the solution here? Should Milo be banned from walking on the grounds of a public university because someone might attack him and security costs are so high? Should Milo and everyone associated with him be banned from speaking on campus because too many people want to protest him? Is there any solution you can offer that would not also apply to anti-racist speakers facing threats from white supremacists?

    • Of course Milo should not be banned from campus, nor should any other individual not posing a direct threat to others. But it’s important to note two things. First, UCB did not mobilize security on Sunday to protect Milo or his right to speak (which, of course, he didn’t do). They were there to protect students, staff, university property and the general public.

      Second, and more important, Milo didn’t just stroll onto campus. His appearance culminated months during which he and his tiny band of student supporters — the Berkeley Patriot apparently has about 5 members, although only two have ever acknowledged that affiliation — jacked the university administration and the entire community around, failing to communicate; blustering about speakers who hadn’t even been invited, much less confirmed; missing deadlines; etc. (I will leave it to people more closely involved to determine to what extent the student group was culpable and to what extent they too were used by Yiannopoulos.) During this time, it should be noted, the free speech of others was hindered, most famously by the rescheduling of an anthropology talk but in other ways as well. Just a few days ago a graduate student instructor asked me what she should do with a class scheduled smack dab in the middle of one of the most controversial (now canceled) “speech week” events. She was afraid her students wouldn’t come because they were afraid to be on campus or were simply inconvenienced by all the security. Was her teaching and her students’ participation not protected speech?

      The issues, therefore, are complex and any “solution” will be too. But the Cal administration went out of its way to ensure Milo’s free speech, even though they clearly knew his real intent had nothing to do with free speech, but simply self-promotion. Many on campus believe they went too far; I’m not so sure I agree. But I do know that “free speech” can’t be treated as an abstraction. It always takes place within a given context, and Milo’s “speech” Sunday came in the context of a whole series of events (and prior speech) that cannot be ignored. Decisions to protect one person’s speech may endanger another’s. That’s just how it is.

      So now UCB will consider some policy changes. For example, they will discuss how many events a student group may sponsor. They will consider limits on a security budget, with a policy that perhaps might say that once that budget limit is reached, security becomes the responsibility of the sponsoring group. (My guess is if they go that route, they will need a policy for last-minute exceptions) They will surely discuss whether to treat events directly related to the university’s mission (a visiting lecture by a scholar or public intellectual) differently from ones that are mainly about entertainment (a rock concert, a performance by Jerry Seinfeld). And they will surely have one hell of a time seeing if they can draw a line between them. But that’s what university governance is about: making difficult decisions based on upholding the institution’s core values, which include, of course, academic freedom. I hope that whatever solutions UCB comes up with, they are developed with the involvement of elected faculty and student representatives from multiple perspectives.

      Finally, for an excellent treatment of the Berkeley situation, I highly recommend reading Aaron Hanlon’s op-ed piece in today’s New York Times. Hanlon has been one of the most thoughtful commentators on the whole outside speaker issue. His piece may be found at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/24/opinion/milo-yiannopoulos-free-speech-week-berkeley.html.

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