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UC Berkeley chancellor unveils 'Free Speech Year' as right-wing speakers plan campus events

Carol T. Christ, UC Berkeley’s 11th chancellor and the first woman to lead the nation’s top public research university, unveiled plans Tuesday for a “Free Speech Year” as right-wing speakers prepare to come to campus.

Christ said the campus would hold “point-counterpoint” panels to demonstrate how to exchange opposing views in a respectful manner. Other events will explore constitutional questions, the history of Berkeley’s free speech movement and how that movement inspired acclaimed chef Alice Waters to create her Chez Panisse restaurant.

“Now what public speech is about is shouting, screaming your point of view in a public space rather than really thoughtfully engaging someone with a different point of view,” Christ said in an interview. “We have to build a deeper and richer shared public understanding.”

The free speech initiative comes after a rocky year of clashing opinions on campus. In February, violent protests shut down an appearance by right-wing firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos, prompting President Trump to question the campus’ federal funding. A few months later, conservative commentator Ann Coulter canceled a planned appearance after the campus groups hosting her pulled out.

Yiannopoulos has announced plans to return next month to spend days in a “tent city” in Berkeley’s iconic Sproul Plaza. Conservative author and columnist Ben Shapiro is scheduled to visit Sept. 14.

The free speech issue drew the biggest spotlight in the new chancellor’s daylong media interviews and welcoming remarks to 9,500 new students. Christ, dressed in blue ceremonial robes, told the new arrivals that Berkeley’s free speech movement was launched by liberals and conservatives working together to win the right to advocate political views on campus.

“Particularly now, it is critical for the Berkeley community to protect this right; it is who we are,” she said. “That protection involves not just defending your right to speak, or the right of those you agree with, but also defending the right to speak by those you disagree with, even of those whose views you find abhorrent.”

She drew loud applause when she asserted that the best response to hate speech is “more speech” rather than trying to shut down others, and when she said that shielding students from uncomfortable views would not serve them well.

“You have the right to expect the university to keep you physically safe, but we would be providing you less of an education, preparing you less well for the world after you graduate, if we tried to protect you from ideas that you may find wrong, even noxious,” she said.

Although everyone wants to feel comfort and support, Christ said, inner resilience is the “the surest form of safe space.”

But she also emphasized that public safety also is paramount. At a morning news conference dominated by free speech questions, Christ said the February violence triggered by the Yiannopoulos event had underscored the need for a larger police presence. Only 85 officers were on the scene, she said, when a paramilitary group 150 strong marched onto campus with sticks, baseball bats and Molotov cocktails.

Under an interim policy that took effect this week, campus police will provide a security assessment for certain large events that could endanger public safety, and the hosting organizations will be responsible for basic costs. Such organizations will have to give advance notice, preferably eight weeks or longer, and provide detailed timetables — and contracts with speakers may not be finalized until the campus has confirmed the venue and given final approval. The rules will be applied to all events, regardless of viewpoint.

Most of the rules already exist but have not been laid out in a unified, consistent policy known to all, Christ said. She said the student group hoping to host Coulter, for instance, offered her a date and time without checking with campus administrators that a venue was available; none was. Berkeley did not cancel the event, as has been reported, Christ said.

Campus spokesman Dan Mogulof said, “We want to eliminate all gray areas … and make sure there’s clarity about what people need to do so we can help support safe and secure events.”

The campus is accepting public comments on the interim policy until Oct 31.

Christ’s focus on free speech heartened Alex Nguyen, a sophomore studying molecular cellular biology. She said she took the issue especially to heart because her parents were born in Vietnam, where criticizing the government could lead to imprisonment.

“I want her to really protect free speech because there’s really high political tensions here,” Nguyen said of the chancellor. “We’re at the university to learn new things and disprove our ideas.”

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter: @teresawatanabe

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