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Student Organizers Cancel 'Free Speech Week' Events at UC Berkeley

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Protesters gather around a bonfire lit on UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza after a speaking event by Brietbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos was canceled on Feb. 1, 2017. (UC Berkeley via Twitter)

Organizers of the controversial "Free Speech Week" on the UC Berkeley campus tell KQED that the event has been canceled.

Reports say that conservative author Milo Yiannopoulos will hold a press conference on Saturday publicly canceling the four-day event, which was scheduled to start Sunday and was set to feature a long list of right-wing speakers, including former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.

A representative for Yiannopoulos, Zachary LeCompte-Goble, told KQED he "couldn't confirm" the event would continue.

"It'll be explained in the press conference," he said.

University spokesman Dan Mogulof released a statement on Saturday that the student group organizing the event says it's not happening.


"Representatives of the Berkeley Patriot student organization have informed UC Berkeley’s administration that all of the events scheduled for the coming week have been cancelled," Mogulof said in a statement. "It is extremely unfortunate that this announcement was made at the last minute, even as the University was in the process of spending significant sums of money and preparing for substantial disruption of campus life in order to provide the needed security for these events."


The university had geared up, planning to dispatch police troops in riot gear. The cost for security was estimated to top $1 million.

Mogulof said in the statement that the university is deeply committed to free speech and would continue to work with student groups in the future to bring speakers to campus.

The debate and back-and-forth over speech on campus goes back decades, but was inflamed again at the beginning of this year when a student group called the Berkeley College Republicans invited former Breitbart News columnist Yiannopoulos to speak on campus.

Left-wing protesters shut down the Feb. 1 event before it even started. Clashes on Sproul Plaza, the heart of UC Berkeley’s campus and the birthplace of the country’s Free Speech Movement during the 1960s, scared liberals and conservatives alike. And now some students on the right say this liberal academic bastion is squelching conservative speech.

“It is scary to be on this campus these days,” says Mike Wright, a Berkeley College Republican. “Ever since Trump’s election, it’s been intense. And the university has done nothing for us.”

Outside conservative groups like the Young America's Foundation are stepping in and using Berkeley to test the thresholds of free speech. These outside organizations are reported to have helped another student group, the Berkeley Patriot, pay for and organize “Free Speech Week" before it was canceled.

Leading up to the four-day event, student organizers and even some of the speakers had been battling with university officials over logistical details, including the use of on-campus venues, the cost of those venues, and which speakers have been confirmed.

Some say it was the university’s way of blocking this from taking place, but UC Berkeley’s Chancellor Carol Christ says it’s about campus security.

She says the speakers have the right to speak their mind at this public university.

“The United States Constitution guarantees free speech in an extraordinarily broad range,” Christ says. “It only limits free speech where there is direct physical harm from that speech. It doesn’t protect from emotional harm, though emotional harm is real.”

Many faculty members don't approve of Christ’s stance, and called on students and faculty to take part in a university boycott and not show up to class during the four-day event.

African-American Studies associate professor Leigh Raiford says these speakers are simply rebranding hate speech as free speech.

“The idea that feminism is a cancer or that black people are biologically inferior, these are ideas that we, rightfully, have banished to the margins of our thinking,” she says. “I really don’t believe they have any place in an institution of higher learning.”

Organizers, however, continue to insist it’s important to hear all points of view and that students can’t learn in an echo chamber.

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