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UC system will chip in at least $300,000 to help Berkeley pay security costs for controversial speakers

The University of California will chip in at least $300,000 to help UC Berkeley pay security costs for controversial speakers, an unprecedented step as criticism mounts over the financial toll the events are taking on the campus.

“Free speech is not free, it turns out,” UC President Janet Napolitano told the Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau on Wednesday. She said UC would underwrite security costs through “Free Speech Week” — which begins Sunday and will feature right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and others — but that such support may not continue.

“The question, or the rock and the hard place that Berkeley is in, and other university campuses, is the value put on free speech and the safety and security issues that are implicated,” Napolitano 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. 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.

Berkeley has shelled out 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 Ann 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 UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof.

Mogulof said security costs for Free Speech Week would not be known until the program was finalized but could top $1 million. UC 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.

In an interview this month, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ said the campus will need to explore policies to contain the security costs, perhaps budgeting an annual amount and cutting off events after the funds are used up.

Mogulof said that universities are expected to take “reasonable steps” to accommodate speakers but that it was legally unclear what that entailed. The campus will need to explore such questions sometime after the current round of events are over, he said.

“It seems very clear to us what our obligations are, and we accept them without complaint,” Mogulof said. “We’d much rather be spending these resources on academic programs or the student experience, but the current conditions on this campus, city and across the country make it clear these are the sorts of expenditures necessary to support our two key commitments: the 1st Amendment and the safety and security of our campus community.”

Many students, however, are irked by the security spending when so many other campus needs are unmet, said Rigel Robinson, UC Berkeley’s student body vice president of external affairs. He said many students are struggling with shortages of classes, housing, financial aid and food.

“We experience every day the repercussions of our budget shortages,” he said. “We don’t have an understanding of where every dollar of security costs is coming from. But the optics of the university being so willing to drop a half-million dollars to facilitate an event for one single student organization could not be worse.

“Event organizers are demanding that they bring chaos to campus but that the school foot the bill,” Robinson said. “We have so many more pressing needs to fund.”

Pranav Jandhyala of Berkeley Patriot, the student group that is sponsoring Free Speech Week, blamed the high costs on the failure of the university and city of Berkeley to “effectively deal with leftist hate groups.”

Some protesters affiliated with anti-fascist groups and By Any Means Necessary marched onto campus for Yiannopoulos’ February appearance and set fires, damaged property, threw fireworks, attacked members of the crowd and hurled rocks at police.

“We’re not responsible for the violence people choose to engage in that drives up the cost of police,” Jandhyala said. “It’s utterly insane that we’re being blamed for violence we’re victims of and are taking so many measures to prevent.”

Sarah D. Wire of the Times’ Washington bureau contributed to this report.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter: @teresawatanabe

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