More than a month ago, the UC Berkeley student organizers sponsoring the "Free Speech Week" of controversial conservative speakers were worried they would be unable to pull off the high-profile event.
They were so concerned about the event that the group discussed rescinding the invitation to Milo Yiannopoulos, according to several members of the group, the Berkeley Patriot, who spoke to KQED over the past week.
“We did have that discussion, but we decided to move forward with it,” said Berkeley Patriot member Ashton Whitty in a conversation before the event cancellation. “We did not tell Milo [Yiannopoulos] that.”
“There were concerns we couldn’t pull it off,” said Berkeley Patriot spokesman Pranav Jandhyala, also in a conversation before KQED reported the event would be canceled.
Meanwhile, in an email obtained by KQED, a friend of Milo Yiannopoulos wrote that he believes the whole thing was a "set-up."
Over several conversations, Berkeley Patriot members described to KQED a process that appears to have spiraled out of control. They described moments of intense internal confusion over speakers attending the event, how to communicate with the media and how to publicly talk about inflammatory statements made by Yiannopoulos and his organization -- statements with which members of the Berkeley Patriot often disagreed.
“We don’t agree with all of the things Milo [Yiannopoulos] is saying,” Jandhyala said. “And we definitely don’t agree with all the speakers who have been invited."
Jandhyala said that the group initially asked for Yiannopoulos to attend because the conservative author's previous speaking appearance at the campus was canceled. They also extended an invitation to Ann Coulter after her appearance was canceled.
UC Berkeley policy requires speakers have a student group involved for on-campus appearances.
Jandhyala told KQED he didn’t see any academic value in having those two speakers on the campus, but that they had a right to express free speech, and the Berkeley Patriot supported that right.
But almost immediately after the invitation, Yiannopoulos and his organization attempted to take control of the event, even going so far as to issue press releases that were not authorized by the Berkeley Patriot. Yiannopoulos also paid the fees for the event, which totaled more than $70,000.
Jandhyala told KQED that at one point, the Berkeley Patriot asked the UC Berkeley administration to help find a way to rescind the invitation to Yiannopoulos without canceling the entire week of events.
UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof told KQED he could not comment on any discussions between the administration and individual students or groups. But he did say, generally, that the university would help any student or group if they asked for it.
“We would make clear to them, as separate legal entities from the campus, they would have every right to rescind an invitation to a speaker, unless they had signed some kind of contract precluding that,” Mogulof said. “We would make sure that they understood this would be solely at their discretion, but the campus would support whatever decision they make.”
“It would be disturbing and unfortunate if all this turns out to be a cynical effort to rebuild the professional career of one person,” Mogulof said of Yiannopoulos.
Emails obtained by KQED suggest the event billed as "Free Speech Week" was driven, in large part, by Yiannopoulos. In one email that was written by Lucian Wintrich, one of the advertised speakers at the event, Milo is said to want to “set up” UC Berkeley. In the same email chain, Wintrich told a UC Berkeley administration official that the Berkeley Patriot and Yiannopoulos decided last week that they “didn’t intend to actually go through with it.”
Reached at his home, Wintrich confirmed he wrote the email to UC Berkeley administrators, and described at length a frustrating and disorganized experience where speakers and other guests were told consistently conflicting accounts and schedules.
“Milo has managed to create a situation where everyone is pissed off at him,” said Wintrich.
Wintrich said he believes this entire, messy episode will hurt future conservative events on campus. And he said it will likely further marginalize Yiannopoulos within the broader conservative movement, especially with wealthy donors.
“This was supposed to be Milo’s third attempt at a comeback,” Wintrich told KQED. "It’s a really, really bad situation for him -- and younger conservatives.”