Berkeley reviews how to handle controversial speakers

If a student group wants to provoke a frenzy with an event at the University of California at Berkeley, it soon may have to tell the administration why, and provide volunteer monitors to deal with any resulting unruliness.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

Those are two of the recommendations presented in a 25-page report on free speech commissioned by the university’s chancellor, Carol Christ. It follows a year of repeated chaos at the university over conservative speakers – unrest that often spilled into the national spotlight.

Most recently, Milo Yiannopoulos, a far-right speaker with ties to white nationalists, promised a week’s worth of incendiary talks in the autumn, but ended up speaking for only 15 minutes on a Sunday. That followed his abortive appearance in February 2017, which was cancelled after protesters broke windows and set a fire.

The university spent a combined US$4 million on security costs for that event and others in the autumn 2017 semester, according to the report. Christ then told The Chronicle that she intended to create the 23-person commission, which comprises faculty and staff members and students.

At the time, Christ said she suspected that Yiannopoulos’s ‘Free Speech Week’ – technically hosted by a student group – was a fiction, possibly created as a "attractive narrative for the alt-right." Berkeley has since faced a perception in conservative circles that it curtails free speech; it’s seen by many on the right as a stereotypical example of leftist politics run amok on college campuses.

The commission seems to have little patience for speakers like Yiannopoulos. According to the report, several members believe that such speakers are motivated by little more than "the pursuit of wealth and fame through the instigation of anger, fear, and vengefulness in their hard-right constituency."

Among the panel’s recommendations: designate more places where people can show up without warning to speak on any topic; have police officers wear plain clothing (uniforms or tactical gear were a common sight at past events) when monitoring potentially chaotic speeches; and schedule events to compete with talks that are likely to be disruptive or feature hateful statements.

One recommendation would alter the process for booking speakers, effectively making it more difficult. At "potentially disruptive" talks, student groups would have to provide one volunteer monitor for every 50 people expected to attend the event. The volunteers would not have to be students.

‘Tell us why you think it’s important’

The student group would also have to submit a statement that explains the reason for the event and how it’s consistent with Berkeley’s values. That’s to remind students of their responsibility to the campus without imposing a financial cost, said R. Jay Wallace, a professor of philosophy, who is a co-chair of the commission.

"If you have a very small group that’s inviting a speaker who can be predicted to impose massive disruption and cost on the campus," he told The Chronicle, "it seemed to us that the least we can expect of the members of that student group is to just give a public account of themselves. Tell us why you think it’s important to invite this person. What value will their perspective bring to campus?"

The statement wouldn’t be used as a tool to vet or bar groups from speaking, he said, adding that only a small number of events, specifically those under a policy that dictates rules for potentially disruptive speakers, would be affected by the requirement.

Those recommendations could be hard to enforce under the First Amendment, said Will Creeley, vice-president for legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

He questioned whether they are consistent with the university’s ‘Berkeley’s Principles of Community’. One of those principles in particular – "We affirm the dignity of all individuals and strive to uphold a just community in which discrimination and hate are not tolerated" – would be difficult to enforce, he argued, noting that hate is, after all, subjective.

"It’s difficult to see how requiring a group to, quote-unquote, acknowledge the principles of the community will work in practice, in a way that isn’t in some ways an opening for attacking the validity of an event featuring protected speech," he said.

Creeley also said the volunteer requirement could punish student groups who would host less popular speakers. It "serves in practice as a limitation of resources", he argued. That is, it would be easier to find volunteers for popular speakers, and harder for reviled or lesser-known figures.

The commission also suggested that Berkeley, along with the Board of Regents of the University of California system, solicit state lawmakers to help fund efforts to protect free speech on the campus, given its status as the birthplace of the free-speech movement.

"The Berkeley campus is a lightning rod for free-speech issues," the report says, "and therefore carries the burden of protecting the First Amendment for the State of California and for public universities across the nation."

In a public email, Christ said she supported the commission’s findings. It’s unclear, though, how many will be put into effect. "I will work with my leadership team to determine what is feasible for us to carry forward over the course of the next weeks and months," she wrote.

Chris Quintana is a staff reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at chris.quintana@chronicle.com.