Violence over this weekend by left-wing “antifa” activists in Berkeley has opened another chapter in the debate at the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement over UC Berkeley’s plan to host several conservative firebrands next month.
University officials have vowed to allow speakers, including conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, to come even under the threat of violence, which has occurred at Berkeley and other universities earlier this year.
Some city leaders are becoming increasingly wary, fearing a repeat of Sunday’s clashes in which the protesters, wearing black with their faces covered, attacked a small showing of supporters of President Trump and others they accused, sometimes inaccurately, of being white supremacists or Nazis.
"We don’t want the moral, psychological and fiscal expense of having these agents of hate coming to our town,” said Berkeley City Councilman Ben Bartlett. "We know the contest of ideas is at the very heart of freedom, but at the same time when the ideas are certain to cause bloodshed I’m inclined to err on the side of protecting the population, and I say that with a heavy heart.”
Councilwoman Cheryl Davila also opposed the appearance by the conservative speakers, adding: “I don’t appreciate that there are racists coming to UC Berkeley to spew hate.”
The standoff comes as UC Berkeley has been grappling for the last year on how to handle controversial conservative speakers who draw fierce protests in the liberal enclave. In February, Yiannopoulos’ campus speaking engagement was canceled when violent protests broke out on campus and in the city, resulting in extensive property damage.
A planned event with conservative author Ann Coulter was canceled after specific threats of violence were reported to the university. The organization that invited her later sued the school, accusing it of trying to “restrict conservative speech.” The school offered other dates for her to speak but the student groups eventually backed off sponsoring her visit.
Berkeley’s new chancellor, Carol Christ, has been outspoken about what she sees as the university’s need to give a forum to controversial voices.
On Tuesday, UC spokesman Dan Mogulof said the school expects to get a list of confirmed speakers this week and move forward.
The university doesn't “have the right and ability to interfere with their invitations based on the attitudes of speakers,” Mogulof said.
“We’re doing what we can to support an academic mission to provide a wide view of opinions and perspectives,” he said. “For those who choose the path of violence and confrontation, we will meet them head on.”
Yiannopoulos confirmed in a text message to The Times that he would participate in a “Free Speech Week” gathering from Sept. 24 through 27 at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, adding in an interview with TMZ that other speakers will be confirmed on “our own timeline.”
“I want everybody to protest on both sides but you have to do it peacefully,” he said. “You have to do it with speech, not violence. As you soon as you lay a hand on someone else or start destroying someone else’s property you become a problem.”
Former Trump advisor and Breitbart Chairman Stephen K. Bannon and Coulter have reportedly been invited to attend.
A spokesman for the Berkeley Patriot — the registered student organization hosting the event — declined to “confirm the specific speakers who have been invited or confirmed for Free Speech Week."
"We are reaching out to relative political figures from both sides of the aisle to ensure all voices are heard," said Berkeley Patriot spokesman Bryce Kasamoto. "The university is having the Berkeley Patriot cover basic security costs directly related to the events as per their interim event policy."
Also, former Breitbart writer and editor of the Daily Wire website Ben Shapiro confirmed on Twitter on Tuesday that he will be speaking at a Sept. 14 event sponsored by the Berkeley College Republicans, which will be footing the $15,000 security bill.
Berkeley police estimated that more than 4,000 people attended what were mostly peaceful displays of opposition to Trump’s agenda on Sunday. Still by day’s end, 13 people had been arrested, one on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and three on battery charges.
Some Berkeley officials said they were conflicted over two dueling realities: Berkeley proudly being a haven where free speech can prosper and the sapping of city resources when these paroxysms of violence break out.
Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said Yiannopoulos was nothing more than “a vacuous provocateur,” but she was torn about his coming because debate is essential on a college campus. She wanted to hear from UC Berkeley officials about their plans for the speakers, because when these events devolve into violence in the streets, the city is left cleaning up the mess.
“I wish they would voluntarily decide not to come, because we have a lot of serious problems like a housing shortage and a homeless crisis,” she said. “All of this distraction is really preventing us from doing the work we need to do.”
Lynne Hollander Savio, the widow of activist Mario Savio, said she is exploring legal options to stop Yiannopoulos from co-opting her husband’s name for an award she suspects he intends to deliver to Coulter. In the spring, the former Breitbart editor announced in a Facebook post that he’d be returning to the campus and giving out an award in Savio’s name.
Mario Savio was one of the student activists who led the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in the 1960s. He famously stood atop a police car after an officer arrested a campus organizer, passionately protesting the ban California administrators had placed on political speech on campus. A 32-hour sit-in joined by thousands of students ensued. Three months later, he delivered a speech before some 4,000 students, an act of disobedience that landed him a four-month jail sentence.
Lynne Savio also called Yiannopoulos “a provocateur” and “self-promoting” without a clear ideology. She accused his announcement to bestow an award in Savio’s name as “stealing.”
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this story.