By Katherine Wang
For weeks, The Berkeley Patriot, a conservative student-run campus publication, meticulously planned out its long awaited event, Free Speech Week. Milo Yiannopoulos, the leader of this event organization, had invited notable speakers including political activist Pamela Geller, conservative commentator Ann Coulter, and fired Google engineer James Damore -- as well as other right-wing figures. His intent was to use free speech to “radicalize white youth” by opposing “academic leftists, social-justice organizations, and minorities”. Everything in this right-wing speaking event was going according to plan -- or so it seemed.
On the morning of event, the university sent out a message written by Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof: “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.” The first few words of the message only revealed a glimpse of the mounting disappointment towards the school’s lack of organization and dedication spent into preparing for the event.
Was the cancellation of this event a mere mistake on behalf of the school administration, or was it a purposeful action taken to limit Yiannopoulos’ campaign? This question pervaded the minds of students and citizens alike. Yiannopoulos brought further accusations against the school by stating that Berkeley had set unreasonable deadlines to secure indoor venues and pressured the students to cancel the event. He argued that the school had never intended to permit the event in the first place.
However, Mogulof defended the university’s intentions by stating, “Claims that this is somehow the outcome desired by the campus are without basis in fact. The university was prepared to do whatever was necessary to support the First Amendment rights of the student organization.” Berkeley, in fact, had already spent $600,000 on a speaking event last week, and it was willing to spend $1 million more “to make these events safe”.
Although figuring out the true intentions behind the university is difficult, the future implications of this event are more uncertain. To many, this cancellation can be seen as a small-scale obstacle in the school’s long-lasting struggle for free speech.
Looking back on the history of free speech in Berkeley, it is evident that free speech is facing more disruptions than ever before. In 1964, the students of Berkeley University planted their first seeds of protest for freedom of speech -- the Free Speech Movement. This movement, which was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, rapidly spread to other college campuses; before long, the nation witnessed university students participating in an unparalleled wave of political and social activism. However, campus disruptions set a pattern for the last few decades of the 1900s, and by the time the 21st century arrived, there was a spike in the sensitivity of students, which led to an increase in disinvitations and shout-downs. This downward trend of free speech has led to increased awareness; as a result, the recent cancellation of Free Speech Week has prompted rising concerns towards the democratic nature of our society.
Therefore, our question should not be “Why did Berkeley cancel the speech event?” but “How are we going to fix this downhill trend of free speech on college campuses?”. Rather than focusing on minor events such as this current cancellation of free speech, we must step back and view the big picture; as a society, we must evaluate our current educational institutions and the importance they place on free speech.