The sun has been down for hours, but Milo Yiannopoulos is wearing white Eurotrash shades indoors, complemented by a large yellow snake named Jared curled around his neck. It’s the night of May 5 — #CincoDeMilo, in Yiannopoulos’ world — and the conservative provocateur has filled what he’s billed as an “abandoned cocaine mansion” with supporters, who by this point have been swigging from blue Solo Cups for hours.
The scene, documented on a livestream, feels like a weird mashup of a college party montage and a pro-Trump rally. There’s a haze of disco lights, #MAGA hats; “feminism is cancer” graffiti and “deport your local illegal” posters cover the white walls behind games of beer pong. There are guns and at least nine strippers (“three male!") and, most importantly to the proud gathering of deplorables, the promise that Yiannopoulos’ resurrection will deliver an unfiltered final blow to liberal snowflakes and the P.C. culture they cling to so dearly.
The party marks the widely reviled conservative provocateur's return to the spotlight three months after losing his day job and book deal over comments related to pedophilia. But nothing keeps a shameless man down, and as his Facebook page and gushing press on conservative outlets put it: “The Bitch Is Back.”
Around 10 p.m., Yiannopoulos descends a staircase, flanked by muscled, shirtless men, one of whom is carrying a bottle of Champagne. Yiannopoulos, like Arya Stark, has a list of enemies, and tonight, he’s naming names. There’s the publishing house that had pulled his book deal (“fuck Simon & Schuster!” ), feminists (“fuck feminists!”), and everyone trying to silence his views (“I am committed to the end of censorship!”). And then comes one of his biggest adversaries: the University of California, Berkeley.
“I am going to turn UC Berkeley into the home of free speech in America, whether they like it or not,” he roars. Chants of “Free speech! Free speech!” fill the room. “UC Berkeley free speech week,” he continues, “will be this movement’s Woodstock.”
If ever there was a sign of how ugly the debate over free speech has become, Yiannopoulos’ menacing salvo to Berkeley would be it. The message was intended to strike fear into a campus already grappling with repeated conflicts and clashes over conservative speakers throughout the past year, including fiery riots that erupted in February around Yiannopoulos himself.
Berkeley is not the only school that was rocked by 2017’s free speech war: tensions, protests, and, in some cases, violence, flared up across the country throughout the spring semester. There was a fistfight over a white supremacist at Auburn University, a scuffle with an angry mob of students that left a Middlebury professor in a neck brace, and protests that shut down class at Evergreen State in Washington. At the University of Washington, someone was shot in a crowd outside an auditorium where Yiannopoulos was giving a talk.
But it’s the clashes at Berkeley that carry the most symbolism. As the home of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, an era of mass civil disobedience that ignited the very idea of student activism, the school has a reputation for being America’s left wing ground zero. Now, with Berkeley being accused by conservatives of stifling speech from the right, the school’s commitment to the First Amendment is being scrutinized by conservatives ready to pounce on any sign of liberal hypocrisy.
With the fall semester upon us, the administration has proactively declared the start of a “free speech year." Yiannopoulos is scheduled to return this September, invited for his own “free speech week” by a student group; a slate of other big-name conservatives, Ann Coulter and Steven Bannon among them, have also reportedly been asked to speak, too. With headliners like those, there is no guarantee that chaos won’t explode again.
“It seems like violence always ensues on this campus. And it's because it's this particular campus. Because of the free speech movement, it means something much deeper, and much more profound here,” says Zaynab AbdulQadir, president of The Associated Students of the University of California, the school’s student government. “It's like this is a stage for them. This is the stage.”
The University of California, Berkeley is a sprawling research university situated in the bucolic Californian city from whence it takes its name. The institution and its 40,000 students make up the bulk of the city’s economy and identity, and both it and the greater Berkeley area is a hub of extreme left-wing politics in its own right: There are the vegan students who live in co-ops and protest local butchers by playing dead (the co-op opposes both sexism and speciesism); the city's current mayor, a 32-year-old activist who is an “unapologetic progressive” with ties to the Occupy movement; and there are also the far-left extremist groups that make up Antifa, short for anti-fascists, which interject their presence in campus activities from time to time. (One such collective, By Any Means Necessary, even has an official student organization.)
It’s should be no surprise then that the environment can be a frustrating place for conservative students — among them Naweed Tahmas, now a 21-year-old senior who was born and bred in deep blue California. Although he flirted with conservative ideas before he got to college, his ideology really gelled at Berkeley. As Tahmas tells it, his freshman year, he enrolled in a sociology class. One day in class, he says, the professor made a comment insinuating that all immigrants and people of color are oppressed. Tahmas was livid. He’s a minority himself. Both of his parents were immigrants — they came to this country with nothing and, in his mind, achieved the American dream. Outliers, the teacher told him. But what about his aunts, his uncles? They, too, immigrated with next to nothing. And now? They were doctors and engineers. He claims the professor brushed his examples off.
The longer he was in the class, the more frustrated Tahmas became, doubling down on his conservative beliefs: “Republicans usually come to Berkeley as moderates and the more and more time they spend here the more conservative they become.” He registered to vote as a Republican, and in the 2016 presidential election — his first — he was proud to support Donald Trump. After Trump’s improbable election win, the rest of the Berkeley College Republicans leaned into their conservative beliefs, too. In fact, while they are the ideological minority, the club has a bigger membership than the Berkeley Dems and sees higher turnout at events, students from both sides of the aisle say.
As emboldened as the small cadre of conservative students like Tahmas were post-November, those on the left had an equal and opposite reaction: They were crushed and angry — and some acted out. Vandals stole signs from Berkeley College Republicans’ table in the center of campus, Tahmas alleges. Fellow students hurled insults at them. Tahmas says he was punched in the face. Tahmas and his young GOP compatriots thought that the best way to break through the liberal noise and opposition was to bring big-name conservatives to campus.
“It’s only when you invite a high profile speaker [that] it generates a campus dialogue, [and] students begin to interact with us more,” Tahmas says. “We live in an ideological echo chamber at UC Berkeley, where students are only exposed to one set of views in their classrooms. We can invite the traditional conservative that focuses on lower taxes, but that doesn’t fill seats and that doesn’t create that dialogue.” In early December of 2016, the club announced that it had booked one of those high-profile guests for early February, shortly after Trump’s inauguration. That speaker was Milo Yiannopoulos.
Yiannopoulos is no ordinary conservative. The 32-year-old Brit, who until the spring worked for Breitbart News, has a brash, vitriolic, take-no-prisoners approach to trolling. The self-declared "most fabulous supervillain on the internet” has built a following — and a career — going after women, transgender people, Muslims, immigrants, and other vulnerable communities. He was so nasty, in fact, that he was permanently kicked off Twitter for harassing the comedian Leslie Jones. He titled last year’s tour of college campuses “Dangerous Faggot.” As Breitbart wrote ominously in a post on the tour’s announcement: “Triggered social justice warriors and cowering college administrators were breathing a sigh of relief. They thought it was all over. They were wrong.” His ultimate goal appears to be to agitate liberal foes, not just exchange ideas; there are reports that he is being funded by deep-pocketed conservatives to do just that.
At campus after campus, Yiannopoulos jumped in, rhetorical guns blazing. He used a gay slur to describe a West Virginia University professor on stage and mocked a transgender student in front of a packed crowd — and on livestream — showing her photo to the audience as he belittled her. Negative headlines and op-eds followed. Tensions and violence escalated. Angry protesters shut down an appearance at UC Davis. Then there was the shooting at University of Washington. Some campus groups and administrations canceled appearances.
His behavior was rebuked by many at Berkeley. Dozens of faculty signed a letter urging the administration to cancel the Yiannopoulos visit on the grounds that his trademark vitriol — tirades that “routinely veer into direct personal harassment” — violate the campus Code of Conduct. Days before the planned speech, a new threat emerged: an announcement by Yiannopoulos about going after so-called “sanctuary campuses” sparked rumors that he was going to use his Berkeley speech, which was the “Dangerous Faggot” tour’s grand finale, to out undocumented immigrants within the student body.
Tahmas denies that their guest planned to do this. But rumors travel fast on college campuses, and given Yiannopoulos’ track record, the fears weren’t implausible. “That was the biggest concern,” JuniperAngelica Goff-Cordova, an openly trans student senator, tells me. “Who is he going to target?"
True to its free speech core, the administration stood by the College Republicans’ right to bring Yiannopoulos to campus. To an extent, this reaction should have been expected: The First Amendment, which protects, among other things, the right to express one’s beliefs without censorship by the government, is a principle that’s not only deeply embedded in the DNA of our democracy, but in the philosophy of academic inquiry on our campuses. The thinking goes: A free exchange of ideas is essential to developing a population of critical thinkers. On top of that, public colleges and universities are essentially constitutionally bound to protect speech on their properties.
This is especially true in today's political climate. “We are defending the right to free expression at an historic moment for our nation, when this right is once again of paramount importance,” Berkeley's chancellor at the time wrote in an open letter to students. “In this context, we cannot afford to undermine those rights, and feel a need to make a spirited defense of the principle of tolerance, even when it means we tolerate that which may appear to us as intolerant.”
There are some on the left that do not agree — among them, the local anti-fascist movement, known as Antifa. This group, which is believed to include a small number of Berkeley students among the ranks, spent the days leading up to the planned speech mobilizing. Some members of Antifa embrace tactics that include violent disruption, which they believe is justified in some cases. “Milo is seeking to use the campuses to serve a larger fascist transformation of America and its entire culture,” a group called Refuse Fascism reportedly wrote in an email about the protest. “Students are right to SHUT IT DOWN because yes, it’s dangerous. Fascism is dangerous to humanity. And you, if you oppose this with everything you’ve got, will have the honor of being dangerous to fascism.”
When AbdulQadir went to class at 4 p.m on February 1, the day of the speech, Berkeley's Sproul Plaza was filled with thousands of protesters. It was calm and organized. Participants were “chanting and walking in circles,” she recalls. “People were planning to do a dance party nearby and they asked people to bring instruments and things.”
By late afternoon, Tahmas and Milo were holed up in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union, where the speech was supposed to be held. Masked “black bloc” protesters were outside throwing molotov cocktails at the building. They carried backpacks filled with sticks and bricks. Outside, M80 fireworks turned the night sky aflame. In the building where Tahmas and Yiannopoulos hid, fire alarms began to wail. “We weren’t sure how exactly we were going to escape,” Tahmas says. Eventually, the building was evacuated. “Protesters immediately recognized us, they were shouting ‘F the Berkeley College Republicans,’” he says. Tahmas ran to a friend’s house nearby to take shelter until things died down.
On the ground, freshman Pranav Jandhyala circulated within the crowd, filming on his phone for a student publication called The Tab. “Who are you?” he shouted at the masked protesters storming the campus and shattering windows. “What are you doing here? What organization are you with?” That’s when they turned on him. “They tried to take my camera, violently, shook it away from me, started beating me with their fists and sticks in the head,” Jandhyala recalls. He says he went to the hospital with a concussion.
Amid the mayhem, administrators pulled the plug before the speech could even begin. They cited “violence, destruction of property and… concern for public safety.” Campus police issued a shelter-in-place, tweeting that students should “stay indoors and away from windows.” The protests caused $100,000 in damage to campus property — and even more to the surrounding community. But that wasn’t the only destruction.
“The campus police had just not seen these organized efforts on essentially para-military style with a significant number of people to disrupt,” Professor Robert Powell, chair of the Academic Senate, says. “The real issue is now there seems to be a new reality in terms of trying to have controversial speakers. The policies that one could have in the past just aren’t working.”
The breakdown at Berkeley sent shockwaves across the country. From their TV sets and Twitter windows, conservative pundits pounced: Tomi Lahren lambasted the campus as a “militant herd of triggered crybabies.” President Trump fired off a tweet threatening to pull Berkeley’s federal funding. It wasn’t just coming from the right, either: The outcome “should make supporters of free speech shiver,” a Los Angeles Times editorial declared.
In response, people watching the news at home retreated into two camps: on the one side there are those who see the conflict as an attack on the First Amendment by liberal thought police (and their violent leftist co-agitators) who require safe spaces and trigger warnings to stifle conservative ideas they don’t agree with; and on the other are those who argue that speakers like Yiannopoulos are simply undeserving of protection because they’re literally inflammatory — the political equivalent of yelling fire in a theater.
In some ways, for Yiannopoulos and his crusade against what he sees as politically correct censors on the left, the cancellation was a win. In an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, he called the events "heavily ironic and very, I think, self-defeating for the social justice left."
"No one’s safety is at risk from different opinions," Yiannopoulos told him. "No one’s physical safety is endangered by political ideas from a speaker on campus, but universities have sort of allowed this stuff to happen, and even in some cases encouraged it." He pledged to return.
The escalation of violence at Berkeley might have been unique. But some advocates of free speech see it as part of a troubling trend. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit that supports unabated speech on campus, collected reports of more than a dozen attempts to disinvite speakers from campuses because of their views in the spring of 2017. Yiannopoulos accounted for two of those.
"There’s a real lack of civil discourse in society in general right now," Samantha Harris, FIRE's vice president of policy research, tells me. "On campus what it translates into a lot is people simply arguing that viewpoints they disagree with should not be aired. You combine that with what I think of as an increasingly consumerist model — students are viewed as consumers, versus [being there to] educate them — and too often we see campuses giving into the calls for censorship."
Yiannopoulos’ critics, meanwhile, saw in the breakdown signs of another troubling trend: the co-opting of free speech for political aims. "At the national level, you have right wing martyrs who are trying to use these moments to hold themselves up as martyrs and turn themselves into victims while genuinely attacking real victims. That leads to turning these things into a spotlight, and making them battleground for this broader ideological war,” Angelo Carusone, president of the left-leaning Media Matters, tells me. “It reinforces this bigger narrative that the conservative media is telling about liberals: that they’re snowflakes and that the politically correct culture is not just eroding traditional values — because they're not talking about that — but it’s eroding free speech.”
“It’s a really nasty narrative,” she adds. “And that’s the cumulative effect.”
Even supporters of free speech on Berkeley’s campus question some of the tactics. Bill Shireman, a professor who advises the school’s chapter of Bridge USA, a group aimed at bridging the political divide, said while he supports the right for incendiary speakers like Yiannopoulos to come to campus, he personally finds "their manipulative approach to be directed toward exploiting free speech not practicing it."
"The way that these events have been structured — to maximize conflict and to squeeze as much audience on conservative and progressive media as they possibly can by emphasizing the blood, emphasizing the conflict — undermines public support," he says. Multiple students I spoke with for this story expressed exasperation and frustration about being thrust into the middle of the debate and the ensuing media firestorm.
"If you poke the average student and ask them what they think about this, they’d say: 'I’m tired of students being blamed for this,'" Varsha Sarveshwar, development director of the Cal Dems, explains. "The one thing that is pretty unifying is that 40,000 students are being portrayed as crazy radical violent leftists, when a lot of students didn’t even know it was happening. They just wanted to go to class." Students also worry about the potential danger the protests create for the community; in the course of a 30-minute conversation earlier this year, Sarveshwar mentioned fears of someone being shot in Sproul Plaza multiple times.
After the riot and the media frenzy that followed, Jandhyala, the student reporter, wanted to make things right. He was also the president and co-founder of Berkeley’s Bridge USA chapter. The group wasn’t involved in bringing Yiannopoulos to campus. But he saw himself as a supporter of First Amendment rights in general, and he never expected things to get so bad — or so violent.
“After the Milo riots we said, 'Okay, it’s now or never,'” he tells me, reflecting back on that period. “Because right now, it’s the time we need to come together as a campus community.”
Dialogue, he thought, was key to de-escalation. He penned an earnest op-ed for the Huffington Post optimistically titled “How We Move Forward As A School To Lead The Nation.” A week after the protests, Bridge at Berkeley hosted an event and centered it on the question “What does it mean to uphold the values of free speech on campus?” Students from across the spectrum — “even some anarchists!” — came out. When Trump announced his Muslim ban and build a wall strategy, Bridge at Berkeley scheduled talks and debates on immigration. Jandhyala saw it as an opportunity to show the world that Berkeley could be a place for civil discourse.
To accomplish that, his organization worked with Cal Dems to host Maria Echaveste, a former Clinton official and law school professor, for a talk about immigration. And when it came to bringing a conservative voice, they consulted the Berkeley College Republicans. The club threw around various names — Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich — and settled on Ann Coulter, another verbal flamethrower. To Tahmas, the pick made perfect sense: “She was the ideological backbone to Trump’s immigration policies. Her viewpoints translated into policies adopted within the Republican Party so she’s incredibly relevant to discuss immigration under the Trump administration."
Jandhyala had hesitations. "Ann Coulter quite explicitly is not committed to this idea of free and fair discourse," he says. He worried her views could be categorized as "slightly racist," bigoted, and inflammatory. But on the other hand, Coulter had one of the biggest conservative followings on the issue.
"People asked: Why don’t you bring David Brooks? Or other people who speak about an issue but are more intellectual; or that speak about an issue but don’t provoke for publicity? And the reasoning behind it was that her views and her rhetoric are the views and rhetoric shared by millions in this nation," Jandhyala explains. "Whether we like it or not, this is what this side believes. Whatever exists behind door A, we have to go and confront that."
And so they forged ahead. Tahmas says he set off to write a letter inviting Coulter to campus. Student organizers sent a note to administrators saying there was a “50% chance of Ann Coulter coming to campus the last week in April (the other 50% would be the following semester).” A week later, Coulter RSVP’d yes.
What happened next is seen by some as the kind of rookie mistake-turned-cautionary-tale to be passed down to future generations of student event planners. It turns out, the student organizers who invited Coulter had not yet confirmed the date and secured a venue with the university before Coulter agreed to speak there — and, perhaps more importantly, before the news was publicly announced. On March 28, the same day the Coulter announcement appeared on the student paper website, Berkeley College Republicans members emailed administrators with an urgent request: “I just put a room request through, requesting a room that could fit at least 500 people. What do we need to do in order to be granted this request?” They needed space at 7 p.m. on April 27 — the date that was already confirmed with Coulter, but was just four weeks away and during the busy last week of classes.
That wasn’t doable, the university said. Meetings and emails to try to work things out followed. The university said the event had to occur earlier in the day in a "securable" venue. How early became a point of contention in the negotiations that followed, as student organizers raised concerns about turnout (they argued peers would be in class and unable to attend) and Coulter's travel schedule. At one point, the student organizers signaled they were open to a venue that could seat about 300 people starting at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m., and even asked Coulter to move up her flight to make it work, according to emails included in a legal complaint.
On April 18 — just over a week before the planned event — the venue request was officially denied: After a "comprehensive review of potential sites and security arrangements," the university police determined that "given currently active security threats, it is not possible to assure that the event could be held successfully — or that the safety of Ms. Coulter, the event sponsors, audience, and bystanders could be adequately protected — at any of the campus venues available on April 27." They proposed moving the talk to the following fall.
"One of the primary lessons learned here is that before a student organization commits to hosting an event on a specific date, we need to first work together to determine if a suitable venue is available at that time," two vice chancellors wrote in an email that noted, pointedly, that they had learned through the newspapers about the invitation in the first place.
The university then came back with another offer: Host Coulter during the day the first week of May instead. Coulter and the College Republicans both balked at that idea — why should she be relegated to a daytime slot during so-called “dead week,” the period between the end of class and the start of exams, when that Clinton official was able to speak on the same topic to an auditorium in prime time? (It's worth noting, however, that Clinton official reportedly attracted an audience about 10% the size of the original anticipated turnout for Coulter.)
Rival student groups weren’t sympathetic. "National media doesn’t talk about this because it’s a local issue, but booking a venue on campus is hard. There’s over 1,000 student organizations; they all want to hold events; you’ve got to get to those venues fast. So when [Berkeley College Republicans] tried to really quickly book a venue on April 27, it didn’t go well for them basically," Sarveshwar of the Cal Democrats quipped. "It’s hard for everybody."
On top of that, Sarveshwar questioned the argument that dead week would equal an empty auditorium: "If you hold an event when there’s no classes, people are more available to show up, not less."
In Berkeley College Republicans’ eyes, they were being held to different standards. Just weeks before, they had canceled a talk by conservative commentator David Horowitz over their displeasure with the venue and time offered by the university. Plus, they claimed there was no hard-and-fast process they could follow to make their speaker invitations work.
"They’re just changing it whenever they want but no other group is imposed with this policy, this arbitrary policy," Tahmas says. UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof firmly disputes his characterization. “It’s very simple," Mogulof says."We have an event policy that makes it possible for the university to support its 1,000 student organizations. If people don’t play by the rules, the university cannot meet that responsibility."
"The university didn’t ban [Coulter]; the university didn’t cancel her, because it was never scheduled," he adds. "The university said sorry we don’t have a venue on that date. Why doesn’t she come a week later? And that was unacceptable to them."
On April 24, the Berkeley College Republicans sued the university for infringing upon their First Amendment rights and allowing “the demands of a faceless, rabid, off-campus mob to dictate what speech is permitted at the center of campus during prime time, and which speech may be marginalized, burdened, and regulated out of its very existence by the unlawful heckler’s veto.”
“Though UC Berkeley promises its students an environment that promotes free debate and the free exchange of ideas, it has breached this promise through the repressive actions of University administrators and campus police, who have systematically and intentionally suppressed constitutionally-protected expression by the Plaintiffs (and the many UC Berkeley students whose political viewpoints align with Plaintiffs), simply because that expression may anger or offend students, UC Berkeley administrators, and/or community members who do not share Plaintiffs’ viewpoints," the complaint, filed by a high-profile GOP lawyer based in the Bay Area, reads. The Young America’s Foundation, a conservative nonprofit that helped the College Republicans bring Coulter to campus, joined as a co-plaintiff.
Jandhyala agreed that some things needed to change — in particular, he wanted to see a more proactive police response to escalating protests to lessen the potential for violence — but he found the reaction from Berkeley College Republicans (and Coulter) to be counterproductive. The whole ordeal created "a perception that [the administration is], censoring conservative speech on campus, which they’re not. They’re put in a tricky bind when these outside groups are threatening violence."
“This was just a breakdown of logistics on the parts of all the players: the administration, us and BCR, Ann Coulter’s team. Logistically, it just didn’t work out,” Jandhyala says. “And now the enemy that’s painted is the administration and the student body. And neither of those two groups is the enemy.”
Still, the Coulter fracas and ensuing lawsuit sparked yet another round of press coverage on the so-called free speech wars — Tahmas was even interviewed on Fox News. This time, it wasn’t just conservatives weighing in. Liberal icons like Elizabeth Warren came to Coulter’s defense: "My view is, let her speak and don't show up,” the U.S. senator from Massachusetts said.
Coulter, always media savvy, fanned the flames. She pledged to come to campus whether she had a venue or not, even with the threat of violent protests. "I'm showing up... It's up to the police to keep me safe,” she tweeted. Young America’s Foundation and the Berkeley College Republicans backed out of the event, claiming a "lack of assurances for protections from foreseeable violence."
On the day of her planned speech, hundreds of protesters again flooded campus. The university beefed up its security presence to ensure student safety. But Coulter never showed. She backtracked the day before, calling it a “a dark day for free speech in America.” In the end, Coulter, like Yiannopoulos, didn’t end up uttering a word on campus.
On August 15, six months after the Milo incident, Berkeley’s new chancellor declared the fall semester as the start of a "free speech year." "Particularly now, it is critical for the Berkeley community to protect this right; it is who we are," Carol T. Christ told a welcoming gathering of 9,500 new students. The plan is to have panels exploring the constitutional issues, speakers, and meetings with groups across the student body and faculty.
"What we really want to achieve is engage the entire campus community in a discussion and thought and consideration of free speech and how we maintain community in the context of the university’s commitment to free speech," Mogulof says. "There are clearly forms of speech that are inarguably protected by the Constitution that are all the same very threatening for certain people and for student groups and even damaging."
"But the law is clear," he goes on. "There is a common misconception that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment and that’s not the case. And so upholding our commitment to free speech and meeting our responsibilities to abide by the law can also create tensions here on campus. That’s not anything we’re going to solve from the top down. That’s going to take community-wide discussion and engagement."
The vision will be tested soon enough. Yiannopoulos is scheduled to return in September — this time invited by a conservative student publication called The Berkeley Patriot (A student representative of The Patriot did not respond to requests for comment by press time). Another will come mid-month, when Ben Shapiro, a more conventional conservative commentator, comes to speak at the invitation of the Berkeley College Republicans.
There are some signs that events will be smoother this fall. An updated interim policy for student groups looking to book high-profile speakers has been introduced, and includes an eight-week runway for big events and the requirement that groups check with administrators before booking a speaker — regardless of their political views.
On top of that, the administration and university police have implemented "pretty dramatic changes across the board" to address the threat of disruption by Antifa and other agitators during high-profile events, Mogulof says. Anybody wearing a mask, for example, will be stopped and not permitted to continue on campus. He praised The Berkeley Patriot for working communicatively and collaboratively with the university to schedule the Free Speech Week event.
"It is clear that they share our concerns for the safety and the well-being of their peers," he says. Even Yiannopoulos appears pleased so far: “What a difference six months make! Let’s hope Berkeley sticks to this commitment to free expression," he wrote on Facebook. (When I reached out to Yiannopoulos’ publicly posted email for comment, I received the following response: "A leading digital publication for millennial women," his email read, quoting my description of this website. "lol go away.")
But there are still underlying problems that even the best-written policy or statement of principles cannot fix. For one thing, there’s a risk that any controversial speaker will attract a backlash, both from students and from forces like Antifa. This is especially true in the wake of violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, during which one woman died. Recent clashes between the left and right in the city of Berkeley that saw some violence ("Masked Anarchists Rout Right-Wingers," the front page of The San Francisco Chronicle screamed) have fueled concerns over public safety and the ability to pull off these events. Just this week, Berkeley’s mayor urged campus to cancel the Yiannopoulos event.
"It is very tense," Jandhyala, who is now also news editor of The Berkeley Patriot, but who says he is not involved in inviting Yiannopoulos, admits. "We are all very worried about violence."
The air on campus is charged. Tahmas says students "spit on our table" and launched verbal attacks when they set up a booth in the center of campus this past month. Their complaints over a $15,000 security fee for the Shapiro event, which will be covered by Young America’s Foundation, have already gotten conservative news pick-up and criticism. (They see it as an undue tax on their Free Speech rights.)
In Tahmas’ eyes, efforts to bring people together are falling flat. He claims a recent "fireside chat" on free speech between the new chancellor, student groups, and other administrator "turned into a two hour meeting of all the student groups there attacking our organization; telling us how hate speech is not free speech; how we’re responsible for Antifa destroying campus, instead of uniting around this idea of free speech and together trying to drive off Antifa campus." Mogulof refutes this. "Nobody piled onto anybody," he says. "No administrators piled on, and the administration remains committed to free speech."
Given the tensions and the risks, some students don’t even want to entertain such speakers at all. "I'm over inviting white supremacists onto our campus. Before I prioritize free speech, I'm going to prioritize trans people that Milo wanted to out, or the Black lives that Ann was going to degrade," Goff-Cordova says. "Before I'm dedicated to free speech, I'm dedicated to people's survival."
Whether the new semester evolves into a revolution for conservative free speech advocates against liberal snowflakes, another explosion of violence, or little more than another frenzied news cycle remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: We haven’t seen the last of the campus culture wars — at Berkeley or anywhere else.
America is at war with itself — and schools across the country are ground zero for some of the most intense battles of our generation. Over the next month we will deep dive right into the controversies, meet the students and dig into WTF is really going on at institutions of higher learning, and what that means for the rest of us.