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UC Berkeley Protests Spark Debate Over First Amendment

Posted on Feb 3, 2017

  Protesters move off the Berkeley campus and onto the surrounding streets. (Screen shot via Twitter)

The University of California, Berkeley is known for its decades of progressive protest movements—so it’s no surprise that the campus experienced widespread protests earlier this week in response to an event that was to feature far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos.

The event was canceled after a faction of the demonstrators became violent, NPR reports:

It’s far from the first time a Yiannopoulos speaking event was canceled because of protests, which occur regularly at his events.

In a statement, the university said: “The violence was instigated by a group of about 150 masked agitators who came onto campus and interrupted an otherwise non-violent protest.”

The cancellation of the event prompted President Trump to threaten to cut federal funding from the public university:

Trump’s tweet sparked a debate about free speech at a time when many are already wondering if the new administration is suppressing the First Amendment.

Many Democrats were quick to respond to Trump’s tweet. Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents Berkeley as part of the 13th District of California, issued a news release Thursday:

Milo Yiannopoulos has made a career of inflaming racist, sexist and nativist sentiments. Berkeley has a proud history of dissent and students were fully within their rights to protest peacefully. I am disappointed by the unacceptable acts of violence by outside agitators which were counterproductive and dangerous.

President Donald Trump cannot bully our university into silence. Simply put, President Trump’s empty threat to cut funding from UC Berkeley is an abuse of power. As a senior member of the education funding subcommittee, I will continue to stand up to President Trump’s overreach and defend the rights of our students and faculty.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also defended the university. “Berkeley is the center of the free speech movement,” she said. “I think that the protesters have a right to free speech as well. If there is an infiltration of the crowd by those that are less than peaceful, that should be addressed.”

And numerous other California representatives jumped in via Twitter:

UC Berkeley students and officials were left reeling from the violence at a campus known for its determined yet peaceful protests. Local NBC affiliate KCRA reports:

“It was not a proud night for this campus,” school spokesman Dan Mogulof said, later adding, “We are proud of our history and legacy as the home of the free-speech movement.”

The school prides itself on its liberalism and political correctness, but many on campus pointed to the irony of the historical fight for free speech turning into a suppression of unpopular views today. …

“Berkeley has always stood for self-expression,” said Russell Ude, a 20-year-old football player. “Things like this discredit peaceful protest.”

Philosophy professor John Searle, a leader of the free-speech movement and professor since 1959, called the cancellation “an absolute scandal.” He said most of what Yiannopoulos professes is “disgusting” but that he’s entitled to be heard.

“Free speech has to be allowed for everyone,” Searle said.

Others seem to agree with Searle and have argued that the cancellation of Yiannopoulos’ event represents a threat to free speech.

“Conservative students have the right to bring obnoxious bigots to speak on campus and other students have a right to protest,” writes The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart. “But controversial speakers should be allowed to speak.”

Others, however, argue that Yiannopoulos doesn’t represent a typical political speaker.

“Milo is a very unique situation,” one Berkeley student told NPR. “Milo is an entertainer who has engineered a national tour around provoking college campuses, in order to feed into a narrative that supports this idea that liberal campuses are shutting down free speech.”

A student at UC Davis—where a recent Yiannopoulos event also was canceled after protests—said that as a transgender person, she would fear for her safety if he came to the campus.

“The fear is with the folks who are going to see him,” the student told CNN. “He leaves. But the folks who are attending [his event] are the folks that I have to sit next to in classrooms.”

The First Amendment issue is unlikely to be resolved soon because incendiary far-right figures like Yiannopoulos are coming to the forefront of the political debate ever since former Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon joined the Trump administration.

Arguments about whether to label Bannon, Yiannopoulos and others of their ilk as “white nationalists” or “neo-Nazis” have also emerged in recent weeks.

While it’s unlikely that Trump would be able to cut off UC Berkeley’s federal funding, the takeaway from this week’s protests is about more than fiscal issues.

“I think we need to have a serious conversation about protests,” one Berkeley student said. “This is going to be a big part of our lives for the next four years.”

—Posted by Emma Niles.


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