Berkeley’s Bind

After being mocked by the right-wing media in advance of Ben Shapiro’s speech, the school now faces angry students, frustrated faculty, and the return of Milo.

UC–Berkeley students look out of a window at police officers near Zellerbach Hall, where Ben Shapiro was scheduled to speak on Thursday in Berkeley, California.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ben Shapiro arrived in Berkeley on Thursday night to a militarized zone. Large sections of the campus and six buildings were closed off due to his scheduled appearance. A sizeable contingent of police, recently empowered by the local City Council to use pepper spray against protesters, was on hand to quell demonstrations in anticipation of the kind of violence that rocked the campus when Milo Yiannopoulos tried to speak in February. The L.A. Times reported that costs for security preparations ranged in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, an investment against antifa protesters who Shapiro, a fairly mainstream conservative commentator, called “pathetic, lying, stupid jackasses” in his speech. “All of America is watching because you guys are so stupid,” he said. “It’s horrifying.”

There were few if any antifa black blockers in Berkeley to hear him. Nine people were arrested but UC–Berkeley police chief Margo Bennett told reporters afterward that the protesters who gathered outside the event were mostly peaceful. “For the most part it was an orderly event,” she said, “attended by respectful, orderly people.” But the brouhaha in anticipation of Shapiro highlighted the difficult position Berkeley administrators now find themselves in—trying to maintain calm at a time of political upheaval while protecting students and free speech rights, all under the extremely watchful eye of a right-wing media eager to pounce. And now they are preparing to do it all again.

Later this month, Yiannopoulos, along with Ann Coulter, anti-Islam activists David Horowitz and Pamela Geller, Breitbart’s Alex Marlow, and Steve Bannon will arrive on campus for what Yiannopoulos has dubbed “Free Speech Week.” The event is already disrupting campus life. According to an open letter circulating on social media from frustrated members of the anthropology department to Berkeley’s chancellor Carol Christ, the department has voluntarily rescheduled its Annual Distinguished Lecture due to security measures that will be in place for Yiannopoulos’ speech on Sept. 25. When the professor slated to give the lecture, Anna Tsing, delivers her rescheduled lecture in November, she’ll be unable to meet with graduate students beforehand as originally planned. “Our regular academic activities have been curtailed to accommodate Milo Yiannopoulos,” the letter reads, “and thus the university administration has not honored its own stated commitment to the principles of community.”

A group of 76 other Berkeley professors has written its own open letter, calling for the cancellation of more, if not all classes and campus events during the week of Yiannopoulos’ visit:

Since Inauguration Day, Alt-Right followers have shot someone at the University of Washington, stabbed two people to death on public transport in Portland, stabbed to death a college senior in Maryland, beaten numerous nonviolent protesters at the University of Virginia, and most recently murdered a peaceful protester with an automobile in Charlottesville

[…]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 […] 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.

Berkeley administrators thus have to make a choice: shuffle or shutter academic business, angering those who’d like life to go on when Yiannopoulos brings his circus to town; let business continue as usual, angering those who say academic life can’t go on; or thwart Yiannopoulos with event restrictions or outright cancellations, opening itself to legal challenges given its status as a public university with clear First Amendment obligations, all the while inviting ridicule of what many conservatives believe to be its delicate student body.

For instance, days before Shapiro even arrived, Berkeley’s administration had come under fire for a campuswide email sent by Berkeley executive vice chancellor and provost Paul Alivisatos that outlined the logistics of the event and reminded any potential protesters to demonstrate peacefully and in accordance with the university’s Code of Conduct. The email also mentioned the availability of counseling services on campus, drawing predictable responses from conservative writers. “Yup, those dainty, fragile students who cannot countenance views that differ from their own are being offered counseling because of the possible psychological damage incurred by Shapiro’s rhetoric,” a post last week at the Daily Wire read. “It just shows, Ben, how much they need you there,” Fox News’ Ainsley Earhardt said in an interview with Shapiro on Fox and Friends.“These kids are going to counseling? I mean, grow up.”*

But Berkeley’s assistant vice chancellor for public affairs Dan Mogulof told me that counseling was not, in fact, specifically being offered to those troubled by the prospect of hearing Shapiro speak. He says that the email simply highlighted counseling services that are regularly available to Berkeley students out of concern for those troubled by the possibility of violence, including campus conservatives who had reported being targeted with “verbal abuse” in recent days.

None of this matters a whit to Yiannopoulos or the campus conservatives who’ve repeatedly invited him to Berkeley and elsewhere. In August, Elliot Kaufman wrote a piece in the National Review citing a meeting of Stanford’s conservative publication, the Stanford Review, over whether to host an appearance by Yiannopoulos, as indicative of the mindset of conservative groups that do so. “As one influential editor put it: ‘Best-case scenario is that the SJWs freak out and we get another Berkeley,’ ” Kaufman wrote. “We all knew what he meant: Inviting Yiannopoulos could bait the Left to do something silly and destructive, drawing media coverage that would allow us to act as martyrs for free speech on campus. That is, the left-wing riots were not the price or downside of inviting Yiannopoulos—they were the attraction.”

The relative calm that greeted Shapiro at Berkeley on Thursday night suggests that those bringing in Yiannopoulos might ultimately be disappointed. It will be a circus either way.

*Correction, Sept. 16, 2017: This article originally misidentified Ainsley Earhardt as Elisabeth Hasselbeck. It also misspelled Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s first and last names. (Return.)