New York Times

Berkeley Is Under Attack From Both Sides

By Nicholas B. Dirks, April 26, 2017

The University of California, Berkeley, and the community around it have been symbols of free speech for more than 50 years. We still celebrate the legacy of Mario Savio and others who fought in the 1960s to ensure that the First Amendment be honored on campus.

But today Berkeley is facing extraordinary challenges to living up to this legacy. The campus has become a magnet for groups who seek to use the site of the birth of the Free Speech Movement as a staging ground for violence and disruption.

The now-canceled campus speech by the conservative author Ann Coulter is a dramatic case in point. The Berkeley College Republicans invited Ms. Coulter without consulting with the university about the date of the event. This meant we at the school were unable to identify a place and time that could satisfy the extensive but necessary security requirements.

As a compromise, the college identified other dates and times for the event — during a forthcoming reading week or early in the fall semester — during which secure venues would be available. Meanwhile, we were receiving mounting threats of violence around the event. People describing themselves as anarchists and anti-fascists openly threatened to prevent Ms. Coulter’s talk “by any means necessary.” Right-wing groups threatened to appear on campus armed to ensure the opposite — they declared the event would be held “by any means necessary.”

Given the reality of our times, we could not ignore these warnings. Berkeley has been the site of violent clashes this winter and spring — most notably when the right-wing writer Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak in February. Masked protesters infiltrated peaceful student demonstrations and set fires, injured people and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. While the school remains absolutely committed to ensuring that all points of view can be voiced and heard, we cannot compromise the physical safety of our students and guests in the process.

Ms. Coulter responded by announcing she would speak on the date on which she had originally been invited, but in a public space on campus called Sproul Plaza. But even though the Berkeley campus police department had called for reinforcements from across the state — at enormous expense during a time when California universities face a severe budget shortfall — it could not safely secure the public area. On Wednesday, Ms. Coulter said that she would not speak here at all; the Berkeley College Republicans and other sponsors had withdrawn their backing over safety fears.

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