The future of "Free Speech Week" at UC Berkeley, promoted by author and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, may be in doubt. "Free Speech Week" was planned to be a four-day rally featuring personalities such as author Ann Coulter and Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon. Chanel Korby, a representative for Yiannopoulos, told the Bay Area News Group on Friday morning, however, “...the event is set to continue no matter what,” even while there was no confirmation in what way the event would take place. Also on Friday, speaking for Yiannopoulos was Zachary Locompte-Gobel, who said that he could not confirm whether the planned event will happen this weekend.

In a reported by KQED, Locompte-Gobel told KQED he “couldn’t confirm” the event would take place. He said that it will be explained at a press conference on Saturday.

In advance of the planned September 24-27 event, tensions on the campus of the liberal University of California-Berkeley had continued to mount. In response to the cancellation of “Free Speech Week,” Yiannopoulos is slated to appear at the Saturday presser. 

“Free Speech Week” was intended, according to organizers, to be a counterpoint to what they believe are Berkeley's efforts to shut down conservative and libertarian speakers on campus. When Berkeley cancelled in February a planned appearance by Yiannopoulos because of security concerns, masked Antifa protesters rioted, set bonfires, destroyed property, and scared both conservatives and liberals. In April, controversialist Ann Coulter was also scheduled to appear on campus. Her speech was also abruptly cancelled. Protests followed.

There is evidence to show that many college students accept the use of violence to advance political goals. A Brookings Institution survey of college students showed that 19 percent of students polled believe that violence is permissible to silence ostensibly offensive speech. The study also showed that 44 percent of students polled believe that the First Amendment does not protect hate speech. 

According to John Sepulvado, who host’s KQED’s “The California Report,” confusion over whether Coulter and Bannon would appear during “Free Speech Week” is "part of the whole chaos" in the promotion of “Free Speech Week.” He claimed that making the runup to the event “as confusing and disorienting as possible,” is “part of the M.O. of these activities.” Organizers of the event had reportedly not confirmed the names of the invited speakers or which lecture halls and other facilities were needed.

This week, Yiannopoulos produced a video in which he said that UC-Berkeley is resorting to "slippery and bureaucratic tactics" to thwart the organizers of the planned the event. On his website, he displayed emails from university administrators that allegedly showed bad faith on the part of the university.

While it may have not been UC-Berkeley itself that sought to cancel the event, members of the campus community did threaten to take action against “Free Speech Week.” A group of approximately 130 professors, lecturers, and graduate students threatened to boycott classes and university events during the week of the event. According to an open letter that circulated on the California campus, some students, faculty members, and university personnel felt that they would be unsafe at the university because of the event.

The letter said, in part:

“Therefore, as faculty committed to the safety of our students and our campus, we are calling for a complete boycott of all classes and campus activities while these Alt-Right events are taking place at the very center of UC Berkeley's campus. As faculty we cannot ask students and staff to choose between risking their physical and mental safety in order to attend class or come to work in an environment of harassment, intimidation, violence, and militarized policing. The reality is that particularly vulnerable populations (DACA students, non-white, gender queer, Muslims, disabled, feminists, and others) have already been harmed, and are reporting increased levels of fear and anxiety about the upcoming events, the increased police presence on our campus, and how all this will impact their lives and their studies."

Since Yiannopoulos' cancelled appearance of earlier this year, students, and other groups have criticized Berkeley — which was once thought to be a focus of the 1960s free speech movement -- for effectively silencing conservatives on campus. While campus officials said that the university remains committed to preserving free speech, they said that they must also preserve campus safety. 

A new Brookings Institution survey of college students provides data to support anecdotal evidence that free expression is under threat on U.S. campuses. The nationwide survey found that 19 percent of students believe it is acceptable to resort to violence in order to shut down speech deemed offensive. The survey also found that 44 percent of students believe the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech.”

There was official pressure for cancelling the event, too. Latino activist/Berkeley mayor Jesse Arreguin urged that “Free Speech Week” be cancelled. “I don’t want Berkeley being used as a punching bag,” Berkeley mayor Jesse Arreguin told the San Francisco Chronicle, calling for the event to be canceled. “I am concerned about these groups using large protests to create mayhem.”

University officials released a statement saying that it had not heard from the student organizers of the event as to whether “Free Speech Week” had been cancelled. Earlier, the university appeared committed to facilitating the event. Nevertheless, the campus is going ahead with plans to preserve order by coordinating campus police with “an unprecedented number of allied law enforcement agencies...to provide needed security for these events.” The statement said that the university is spending $1 million to provide security at the event.

Two weeks ago, UC-Berkeley spent approximately $600,000 to provide security at a speech by writer Ben Shapiro, but had budgeted only $250,000 annually for such events. The University of California will reportedly pick up about half of the difference. 

According to his Facebook page, Yiannopoulos is not scheduled to speak during the scheduled events of “Free Speech Week.” However, a spokesperson said on Friday that Yiannopoulos is expected to speak on Saturday in order “is to explain what will be happening during Free Speech Week.” Korby said. “Several of the speakers will be in attendance.”

On Thursday, Yiannopoulos blamed UC-Berkeley for failing to care about security, saying: “I do not believe UC Berkeley wants to be the college campus on which Ann Coulter gets shot dead or Steve Bannon gets shot at.”



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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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