In the 1960s, students at Berkeley helped change the world by igniting the Free Speech Movement, a seminal moment in the history of 20th-century civil liberties. Fifty years later, Berkeley leftists seem to have decided that free speech was a mistake — and the administration seems intent on helping them roll it back.
You’ve already read about the riot that attended a speech by conservative stirpot Milo Yiannopoulos. You may have missed the destruction of College Republicans’ property, and the cancellation of a speech by conservative writer David Horowitz, after Berkeley officials told College Republicans that in order to provide adequate security, the speech would have to be held outside the middle of campus, and in the middle of the day, when many students are still in class. Faced with similar demands when proposing to bring Ann Coulter to campus, BridgeUSA, a nonpartisan group, actually agreed to the terms — and then their event was cancelled anyway. Or maybe just postponed? The administration said it had not had adequate notice to provide adequate security.
(For now the event has been rescheduled to a later date, but administrators are still insisting that Coulter's speech end before 3 p.m., because obviously if people are threatening a speaker violence, the solution is to give the speech at a time when few people can attend.)
For a reporter, this sequence of events is eerily reminiscent of conversations that we sometimes have with sources who want to dodge an interview without admitting they’re doing so.
“Mr. Smith is traveling.”
“That’s okay, a phone interview is fine”
“He’s abroad and very busy. The only time he could do an interview would be 3 a.m. in your time zone.”
“That’s okay, I’ll set an alarm and drink a Red Bull. What day can he do it?”
“Well, Thursday’s out … how about never? Is never good for you?”
Conservatives can be forgiven for a certain wary inkling that Berkeley’s concerns might be similarly pretextual. So I reached out to Pranav Jandhyala of BridgeUSA to get his side of the story. He provided me with the email he sent to an administrator on March 17, nearly six weeks before the event scheduled for April 27. In it, he informs the administration that Maria Echaveste, a former Clinton White House staffer now working at Berkeley’s law school, is confirmed to speak in mid-April (Coulter’s appearance was to be part of an ideologically diverse series), and also reports that his group is in talks to bring Ann Coulter to campus in the last week in. The note says that there is a 50 percent chance she is coming, which should have been enough for the administration to at least begin exploring how to handle any security challenges.
Security challenges Berkeley does have, not only from its own students, but from off-campus radicals, who Jandhyala believes were responsible for most of the actual violence at the Yiannopoulos event. Keeping students safe from violence is, of course, one of the most important jobs of a university. But so is exposing students to diverse viewpoints, and supporting the sacred traditions of free speech which are the foundation not only of liberal democracy, but also of academic freedom to fearlessly pursue the truth.
Berkeley seems to be willing to sacrifice the main point of an academic institution in order to ensure safety. This might be excused as misguided but understandable if the school had proven more aggressive in exploring other options for dealing with the security risks. But as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education notes, “possibly only one person has been charged in the Berkeley riots” — which suggests a certain unwillingness to deploy the traditional tactic of preventing violence. You know … arresting the perpetrators.
I can’t be the only one who suspects that the political leanings of those speakers deemed too risky are the reason that the administration finds it more convenient to place the burden on the victims. I’ve seen the letter administrators sent BridgeUSA, and it emphasizes the university’s “unqualified support for our students’ right to bring speakers of their choosing to the University, and our deep commitment to the values and principles embedded in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution” … then goes on to suggest that the group can probably enjoy their free speech sometime during the day on a Monday or Tuesday in September, which is to say, the least convenient days of the student week. Though of course the letter doesn’t actually promise that even this woefully weak suggestion will be made good.
If the Ku Klux Klan or the Westboro Baptist Church had a history of violent protest whenever Berkeley hosted a lefty, would the administration so quickly bow to the heckler’s veto? Or would the university stand behind the values of free speech?
(I have reached out to Berkeley’s media relations office by both phone and email, but have not heard back as of this writing.)
This is a shameful development at an elite university with such a proud free-speech tradition. Berkeley should be standing up for the values it helped nurture, by making it clear that the administrators will do their utmost to see that anyone, student or outsider, who engages in acts of violence is arrested and faces appropriate criminal penalties. And by announcing in no uncertain terms that students who do not engage in direct violence — but instead try to silence free expression by making too much noise for the speaker to be heard — are violating Berkeley’s “unqualified” support for the right of students to bring speakers to campus, and the “deep” commitment to the values of the First Amendment, and will therefore face serious disciplinary penalties.
Instead, Berkeley has taken a stand for quite different values: for appeasing bullies, silencing speech, and telling the victims to cringe silently in a corner (maybe on some Tuesday in September) while their rights are violated. And that’s the kind of sentiment that no one should be willing to stand for.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
It’s possible that there was a failure of internal communication that led to higher-ups being unaware of the planned program. Such things do happen, completely innocently. But in that case, Berkeley should be saying so, and apologizing profusely for the error, not blaming the students for failing to give notice in time.