UC Berkeley officials on Wednesday canceled conservative commentator Ann Coulter’s appearance at the university next week, citing safety concerns following several violent clashes between right-wing and left-wing protesters in the famously liberal city.
The decision further heightens a free speech debate roiling campuses in California and across the country after disturbances have interrupted, and in some cases forced the cancellation of, conservative speakers.
UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said campus police feared that some of the same extremist forces who caused problems during recent clashes would be out in force when Coulter was on campus.
Coulter immediately attacked Berkeley’s decision in a series of tweets, saying “no school accepting public funds can ban free speech.”
University of California officials have been caught between left-wing activists who have tried to shut down appearances by conservative speakers and right-wing figures who have criticized them for allowing disruptive protests. University administrators have argued that their campuses should be able to tolerate the views of even far-right figures. And some in Berkeley charge that the most extreme protesters on both sides are outsiders provoking violence for their ends.
A February scheduled appearance at UC Berkeley by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was canceled amid a violent protest on the campus. That sparked a national debate — in which President Trump took part — about the balance between the right to demonstrate and protecting free speech that some find objectionable.
There have been two other clashes in the city of Berkeley since then, including one Saturday in which 21 people were arrested.
The UC Berkeley campus is known as the home of the free speech movement. That’s one reason conservative activists have used it as a setting for several recent rallies.
In January, Yiannopoulos and former pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli were supposed to speak at UC Davis. But protests prompted officials to cancel the event.
Earlier this month, demonstrators disrupted a planned public event at Claremont McKenna College featuring conservative commentator and author Heather Mac Donald.
Some academics say the stakes are high, particularly as the nation is facing deepening political divisions in the era of Trump.
“There is a principle at stake — the principle of the right to speak on campus,” said Todd Gitlin, a sociology and journalism professor at Columbia University.
The Berkeley College Republicans, who organized the Coulter event, still plan to host her off-campus on April 27 as originally scheduled, said Troy Worden, the group’s spokesman and a Berkeley student.
“The purpose of the event is to expose the Berkeley community to a [perspective] that they don’t often hear and that the Berkeley administration won’t allow them to hear,” Worden said.
In a letter to the organizers sent Tuesday, Berkeley Vice Chancellor for University Relations Scott Biddy and interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Stephen Sutton told the group they are committed to free speech on campus and would like to reschedule Coulter’s appearance on campus to September.
“The campus retains responsibility for ensuring safety and security during such events,” the administrators wrote.
There was some dispute Wednesday over the terms of Coulter’s appearance.
Young America’s Foundation, a conservative group that helped organize Coulter’s speech, said the university told organizers that the writer “would be required to deliver her speech in the afternoon; only students would be allowed to attend; and the speech location would not be announced until close to the event.”
Coulter, who planned to speak about immigration, in turn requested that police step in to address “law-breaking by rioters attempting to shut down conservative speakers” and that the university announce before the speech that it would expel “any students engaging in violence, mayhem, or heckling to prevent an invited speaker from speaking,” according to a statement by the group.
Mogulof, the Berkeley spokesman, denied that the university limited Coulter’s talk just to students or required that the location be kept secret.
In regards to Coulter’s demand, he said the university would not tell students they would be expelled for heckling.
“Everything we’re doing here … was about maximizing the chances that the speaker and the students could actually exercise their rights with minimal disruption,” he said.
Third-year Berkeley student Juniper Angelica Cordova-Goff, 20, said she was glad the event was canceled. She believes Coulter’s rhetoric targets marginalized communities, including African Americans, Latinos and LGBTQ students, who have the right to feel safe on their own campus.
“I don’t think that anyone’s free speech is being impaired,” said Cordova-Goff, who is studying political science and Chicano studies. “I think sometimes the free speech amendment is used as a way to frame violent conversations as a matter of free speech.”
Andre Luu, 21, a junior at Berkeley and a member of the school’s student government, said he thought Berkeley made the right decision. “Ultimately our university’s obligation is to ensure the safety of students,” Luu said. He didn’t think the cancellation infringed on free speech.
Luu, who studies peace and conflict, said that invited speakers should be held accountable to Berkeley’s “principles of community,” a list of seven principles meant to guide behavior on campus, and “promote constructive dialogue rather than destructive dialogue.”
How Berkeley became epicenter of violent Trump clashes
Editorial: The No Free Speech Movement at Berkeley
Conservative firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos cancels visit to UCLA, student GOP club says
4:55 p.m.: This article was updated with statements from university officials and Berkeley College Republicans, as well as comments from UC Berkeley students.
This article was originally published at 2:05 p.m.
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