Opinion: UC Berkeley Shouldn't Prohibit Right-Wing Speech, Even When It’s Racist and Hateful

But Cal does have the responsibility to ensure public safety—no matter the cost.


  • Photo by Matt St. John
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin was wrong this week to call on UC Berkeley to cancel planned speeches in September by far-right provocateurs Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter. It’s Arreguin’s job, of course, to be concerned about campus violence that could spread onto city streets, resulting in injuries to demonstrators and vandalism of small businesses in downtown. But as the birthplace of the campus free speech movement, UC Berkeley can’t prohibit speech based on its content — even if it’s racist and hateful.

New UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ understands that fact. She has said that Coulter and Yiannopoulos, who were invited by conservative students, will be allowed to speak. But it’s also Christ and the university’s responsibility to ensure public safety — both on and off campus — during and after the speeches. If demonstrators turn violent and assault people, like some did during Sunday’s protests in downtown Berkeley, they should be arrested.

Yes, the cost of public safety for next month’s speeches will be high, but it’s a financial burden UC Berkeley can’t shirk. Free speech, after all, isn’t always “free.”

(And next time Cal has to raise student fees to pay its bills, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to place some of the blame on college Republicans, who seem to take sophomoric pleasure in provoking campus violence while ignoring the costs of pouring gasoline on a fire.)

That isn’t to say there is no clear line between the type of speech Cal should protect and the type it shouldn’t. UC, obviously, should never give a platform to white supremacists or neo-Nazis who openly call for violence. Urging people to harm others is not a First Amendment endeavor.

As mayor of a cash-strapped city that has become a frontline in the Trump-era Hate Wars, Arreguin is also worried about radical black-masked antifascists, known commonly as antifa. “I’m very concerned about Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter and some of these other right-wing speakers coming to the Berkeley campus, because it’s just a target for black bloc to come out and commit mayhem on the Berkeley campus and have that potentially spill out on the street,” Arreguin said.

But Arreguin — and Christ — also should be very concerned about the violent white supremacists who have made Berkeley a favored battleground. It was neo-Nazis who sparked violence earlier this year in Berkeley, and some of those same people showed up later for the deadly demonstrations in Charlottesville.

As the Express pointed out last week, many of these neo-Nazis and skinheads are, in reality, members of violent gangs, although the police and press rarely treat them as such. And unlike antifa, white supremacists publicly call for violence against people based on their race, religion, and gender identification. Antifa, by contrast, exists to combat fascism.

In recent days, much scorn has been heaped on antifa for episodes of violence on Sunday in Berkeley. Some of it was deserved. A few antifa members clearly broke the law, assaulting a few people. But the violence also has been portrayed as the most important thing that happened on Sunday, and that’s clearly wrong. Thousands of people marched peacefully against hate in Berkeley. Their effort and dedication should not go unnoticed.

Similarly, some of the organizers of the weekend’s alt-right rallies in San Francisco and Berkeley have been portrayed as being “innocent” when they were not. For example, Amber Cummings has contended that she’s a peaceful conservative, is not a Nazi sympathizer, and had organized the Berkeley rally in order to speak out against what she views as the pervasiveness of Marxism in Berkeley. But the Daily Cal noted that Cummings is far from innocent. Earlier this year, on Facebook, she hawked sticks and shields with Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman. He’s a prominent alt-right member who is charged with felony possession of an illegal weapon in the form of a stick for his violent activities during a Berkeley protest in March.

“Kyle is legend and will certainly go down in American History and even though these shields are expensive, they will no doubt have a priceless value at some point every shield will come with a hand written signature on it from the man himself,” Cummings wrote in a July 8 Facebook post, the Daily Cal reported. “Kyle needs this funding in order to continue on his journey and Kyle is setting fires in the hearts of men and women world wide.”

In other words, Berkeley can expect more violence in late September. But who said democracy and the right to free speech isn’t sometimes messy?