While “Free Speech Week” was called off, a number of small rallies drew protestors from opposite sides of the political spectrum to Sproul Plaza last week. A large police presence, reserved in anticipation of “Free Speech Week,” was visible throughout campus and a handful of arrests were made following scuffles. However, the national media paid little attention to events on campus after the much-hyped parade of high profile conservative speakers was cancelled, instead shifting their attention to consider free speech in the context of NFL protests.
In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Chancellor Christ contrasted the appearance by Ben Shapiro, who was invited by the Berkeley College Republicans, with “Free Speech Week,” which was driven by a small and largely inactive student group, Berkeley Patriot. Christ called the latter event a “fiction” meant to provide a useful narrative for the alt-right, while the former event realized its stated purpose, namely providing an opportunity for a conservative thinker to share his views on campus. Christ’s further said she suspects Berkeley Patriot never intended for their event to occur, a view backed up by email records obtained by the San Jose Mercury News. In an email exchange with campus leaders, one of the invited right wing speakers, Lucian Wintrich, wrote, “It was known that they didn’t intend to actually go through with it last week, and completely decided on Wednesday.”
The big picture emphasis on free speech in the national media was driven in part by a speech Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave at Georgetown University. Sessions declared, “A national recommitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring First Amendment rights is long overdue.” While the right attacked campuses for supposedly not embracing free speech, a number of commentators called out the apparent hypocrisy of conservative commentators, who during the week were critical of high-profile protests by NFL players. A number of pieces exploring the issue of free speech are included in this week’s news summary on the Our University blog. While the featured writers dismiss the speech of Milo and his coterie as hollow grandstanding, a number are critical of the reception mainstream conservative thinkers receive from student activists.
The Week That Wasn’t
9/26 – Berkeley’s Leader Saw Hints That ‘Free Speech Week’ Was a Stunt. Here’s Why She Planned for It Anyway (Chronicle): Christ emphasized how the campus went of its way to help the group behind “Free Speech Week,” though she now doubts the group ever intended to hold the event:
“We took extraordinary measures to try and accommodate them even though they missed all these deadlines. And we have spent extraordinary resources, not just in money for security, but in people’s time, and the amount of administrative attention this has received.”
9/25 – UC Berkeley’s ‘Free Speech Week’ officially canceled, appeared to be set-up from the start (SJMN): A lawyer for Berkeley Patriot denies Wintrich’s account, saying the group planned to go ahead with “Free Speech Week.”
9/25 – And the point of all this was what exactly? (SFGate): Sociologist David Meyer who studies social movements said Milo’s appearance, albeit brief, was a victory for the provocateur.
9/28 – Milo, Ann Coulter and the “Free Speech Week” Add Up to the Right’s Best Troll Yet (Wired): The article outlines the strategy behind the alt-right’s focus on Berkeley. Namely, appearing on a campus famed for its commitment to free speech forces the university to shell out large sums of money for security, which often prevents violence, but nonetheless provides the right with the optics they crave.
9/26 – Column: The Milo Yiannopoulos shtick shows the disconnect between Berkeley students and the meaning of free speech (LATimes): The article suggests the climate on campus is not conducive to views that go against the grain. The writer notes the difference between the abhorrent rhetoric of the far right and the main stream right, asking if the latter is welcome.
9/26 – Scuffles break out during far-right march in Berkeley; at least 3 arrested (LATimes): The article describes a campus protest by the right wing group Patriot Prayer and scuffles with counter protestors.
9/26 – Confrontations Result in Arrests During Patriot Prayer March in Berkeley (NBC/BayArea): Three were arrested at the Patriot Prayer rally.
9/27 – Berkeley: Suspicious package defuses latest free speech protests (SJMN): A rally that pitted left and right wing protestors against each other was dispersed by police due to a suspicious package.
9/27 – Antifa leader, teacher Yvonne Felarca arrested at ’empathy tent’ Berkeley brawl (FoxNews): The conservative news outlet highlights the arrest of a local Antifa leader who has become a symbol of the movement within right-wing media channels.
Free Speech in Focus
9/26 – Sessions’ Justice Dept. Will Weigh In on Free-Speech Cases. What Should Campuses Expect? (Chronicle): Sessions announced the Justice Department plans to “enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students’ free expression from whatever end of the political spectrum it may come.” However, a number of the institutions the Justice Department has singled out maybe surprising, including Boise State, Clemson and Georgia Gwinnett College. The Justice Department last week filed a statement of interest regarding a case against Georgia Gwinnett last week.
9/26 – Sessions Calls for ‘Recommitment’ to Free Speech on Campus, Diving Into Debate (NYT): You can read Sessions’ prepared remarks in full here.
10/1 – Flip-Flopping on Free Speech (NewYorker): Historian Jill Lepore writes “An unwillingness to engage with conservative thought, an aversion to debate, and a weakened commitment to free speech are among the failures of the left.” While she rejects the claim made by those on the right that conservatives are interested in promoting free speech, she is quite critical of left’s drift away from the lessons of Mario Savio and Harry Edwards.
9/28 – Why We Must Still Defend Free Speech (NYRB): The ACLU’s national legal director argues that while free speech is difficult in such an unequal society, a commitment to its defense is our best bet for preserving democratic pluralism, defending the most marginalized and avoiding violence.
9/26 – A Nation of Snowflakes (Atlantic): The columnist probes the role of the Trump-era state in silencing free, writing, “The boundaries of free speech that elements of the conservative movement mean to set delineate a world in which the state protects the right to discriminate against religious, ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities, and those who choose to protest such treatment can be easily marginalized with public opprobrium or state violence if necessary.”
9/26 – Why Banning Speakers Is Absolutely Wrong (Academe): The author takes a very critical view of a letter Berkeley faculty, students and staff signed calling for a boycott during “Free Speech Week.” The author, TK, writes, “Calling for a campus boycott with the goal of banning certain events and certain speech is an attempt at repression.” He also dismisses claims that “Free Speech Week” posed a threat to students covered by DACA.
9/27 – Free Speech Then and Now: The FSM and the Alt-Right on Campus (Academe): The author, a professor of English, explores how speech on campus has changed under neoliberalism and the embrace of corporate-style techniques for controlling behavior.