Confusion reigns as far-right Berkeley 'free speech week' approaches: Coulter won't be coming

A series of talks by controversial conservative speakers being planned at UC Berkeley by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos appears to be falling apart as the Sunday kickoff date approaches.

For starters, UC Berkeley officials say only four speakers have confirmed their visit with the university.

At least four other speakers whom Yiannopoulos had touted in news releases have said they were blindsided by their inclusion on the schedule and never intended to come.

Yiannopoulos insisted a bevy of high-profile speakers would be attending, but one of the most controversial names on the list — Ann Coulter — told the Los Angeles Times on Friday that she was “never” coming. Coulter almost spoke on campus earlier this year, but that engagement was scrapped at the last minute.

“I never planned to speak,” she said in an email Friday. “My speakers bureau never booked me to speak at Berkeley. No contract for me to speak existed.”

Former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon is another unconfirmed speaker. He didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

Underscoring the tumultuous nature of the preparations was an email sent by Yiannopoulos’ organization Monday telling scheduled speakers that it would make all their travel arrangements for the planned four-day event but wouldn’t book the flights and hotel rooms until 48 hours before their speaking dates to avoid disruptions.

“We are doing this in order to prevent any more sabotage than we have already faced, especially with the University’s latest behavior,” the email from Yiannopoulos’ event manager reads.

It was unclear what behavior the email was referring to, but Yiannopoulos and student sponsors have created a video complaining of the school’s “bureaucratic mission” to silence them.

Campus spokesman Dan Mogulof said that in order for a speaker to be confirmed, the hosting student organization — in this case, the conservative student publication Berkeley Patriot — must provide evidence that the speaker is actually coming.

That evidence could be an email, a contract, a copy of a plane ticket or even a voicemail, Mogulof said.

“Something other than a press release,” he said

For weeks leading up to the event, the university and Yiannopoulos’ organization, Milo Inc., have been arguing in the press as student organizers missed numerous planning deadlines.

The student group missed the deadline to reserve two of the largest indoor venues on campus for the event last weekend.

Mogulof said Friday that the university had not heard from the student group since Tuesday.

In response, the campus said the event would occur largely on Sproul Plaza, the large outdoor gathering place that served as the birthplace of the free speech movement that swept U.S. campuses in the 1960s.

Mike Wright, the student organization’s president, said although it was “frustrating” to see high-profile speakers drop out, the event will go on.

“We are pressing forward,” he said.

Wright said Yiannopoulos and his organization were in charge of the logistics for the event including coordinating and booking speakers.

Even though the event looks shaky, campus officials say they are prepared to spend over $1 million on security for the four-day series — regardless of who actually shows up.

“We cannot play any games or take any chances. We are proceeding on the assumption that all of the speakers who are supposedly coming are in fact coming,” said Mogulof, the Berkeley spokesman.

Yiannopoulos, conservative author David Horowitz, activist Lisa De Pasquale and Breitbart News contributor Ariana Rowlands are the four confirmed speakers, according to the campus.

Lucian Wintrich, a writer for Gateway Pundit, a website that has published conspiracy theories on such topics as Hillary Clinton’s health, was on the university’s list of confirmed speakers released Wednesday. However, Wintrich also pulled out of the event, citing in a blog post the “the seemingly likely chance that something impedes the event.”

Wintrich said in an interview with The Times that he didn’t want college students to “waste their money” coming to the event.

“When it became clear to me this event was being mismanaged on all sides, I really didn’t want people who were flying out and booking hotels to see me to be disappointed,” he said.

Right-wing media personality Mike Cernovich initially was listed by organizers as speaking on Wednesday, but he pulled out this week.

Cernovich said he believed Yiannopoulos “sincerely” wanted to attend, but there was mounting confusion among the proposed speakers.

“After the lineup was announced, speakers began asking me for details,” he said in a text message. “This seemed odd as I wasn’t an organizer. To pull off an event like Free Speech Week would require a huge staff.”

He said he will be in the Bay Area on Saturday to hold a news conference with Yiannopoulos about plans for the event.

UC Berkeley has incurred at least $1.4 million in security costs since February, when Yiannopoulos’ last appearance sparked violent protests. The campus spent $200,000 on security for that event, $600,000 for conservative commentator Coulter, whose event ultimately was canceled by the sponsoring campus groups, and an estimated $600,000 for the talk last week by conservative writer Ben Shapiro, according to the university.

Officials shut down a large portion of Berkeley’s campus as well as three city blocks to prevent the kind of rioting that happened when Yiannopoulos’ February event was canceled. The protests outside Shapiro’s talk were relatively subdued with no widespread violence and nine arrests.

Berkeley has become a favorite spot for far-right activists to speak out, knowing they can get attention and push emotional buttons in what is essentially enemy territory.

Mogulof said security costs for Free Speech Week would not be known until the program was finalized but could top $1 million. The UC system will chip in $300,000 for the Shapiro event and help pay for extraordinary security costs through Free Speech Week, UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein said.

“Milo and his cast of speakers will be on Sproul Plaza, which is a public space … and we will underwrite the safety and security expenses associated with that,” UC President Janet Napolitano told the Times’ Washington bureau on Wednesday. “At a certain point, that position — i.e. that we will have these speakers and pay for the security costs associated with that — may not be sustainable.”

The mounting costs to the campus — which is struggling to reduce a crippling budget deficit from $150 million last year to $56 million by June — are sparking growing concern.

More than 200 UC Berkeley instructors and faculty members called for a shutdown of classes and activities during the event, saying it would protect their students from potentially deadly violence.

The letter cited shootings, stabbings and beatings during confrontations between the right and left in Seattle, Portland, Ore., Charlottesville, Va., and elsewhere.

A counter-demonstration is scheduled in Berkeley on Saturday, the day before the free speech week events are set to kick off. The event, dubbed “No Hate in the Bay: March Against White Supremacy,” is sponsored by an array of groups including labor unions and human rights organizations.

Shapiro, a far less controversial figure than many on next week’s schedule, whose speaking engagement in Berkeley went off without a hitch, said that regardless of whether the event happens, Yiannopoulos has gotten what he wants — headlines.

“Milo makes his living being a provocateur and him going to Berkeley, I think it’s not a shock,” he said in an interview last week. “If Milo is not in the headlines then he’s not doing what Milo exists to do, which is his raison d’etre.”

Shapiro said if the event is canceled it would be all the better for Yiannopoulos.

“That’s what they want,” he said. “That’s what they’re dreaming of. If the event goes off without a hitch, then the saddest people in America are Milo and Bannon, presumably.”

When asked for an update on the week’s events, Yiannopoulos would only say in a text message that he had a news conference scheduled for Saturday in San Francisco and that he would be arriving via speedboat wearing a “$15,000” fur coat.

Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.

benjamin.oreskes@latimes.com

javier.panzar@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

3:00 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from Wright.

1:10 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Coulter and Cernovich.

This article was originally published at 9:35 a.m.

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