Riots in Berkeley, California resulted in the university’s decision to cancel a scheduled speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, and the incident has been characterized as a blow against freedom of speech and/or First Amendment rights. In a very technical sense it wasn’t, because the First Amendment isn’t really involved here [emphasis mine]:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
In other words, “freedom of speech” does not guarantee a person the right to address a group as official speaker in a particular venue such as Berkeley. But Berkeley itself has a commitment to what we might instead call free speech—the presentation of speakers with a diversity of viewpoints, even controversial ones. But it is a mark of where universities are these days, ideologically speaking, that allowing someone with the viewpoints of Yiannopoulos to speak on the campus as an official speaker (he was invited there by the Berkeley College Republicans, a student group) represents a show of (relative) courage by the administration.
What happened next was the problem:
The event began as a peaceful protest. Some students reported on Facebook that things turned violent when masked individuals not affiliated with the school turned up, though the details of what happened are still unverified. Images on Twitter depicted violent protests with damage to local business.
So apparently there was some sort of peaceful protest by students, who were exercising their free speech rights to protest. There’s an inherent and ironic paradox there, of course, because they (at least, to the best of my knowledge) were advocating the banning of Yiannopoulos from speaking on campus, not just protesting his policies or the content of his speech. In this manner, they were in line with recent trends displayed by students on many campuses all around the country to attempt shut down or ban speech they don’t like rather than merely argue with it on the merits. But at least they were doing this in a peaceful way initially, and the Berkeley administration seems to have intended to let Yiannopoulos speak.
Enter the “outside agitators.” They were certainly “agitators”; it’s not clear if they all were really “outside” or whether many were Berkeley students. Clearly, however, they meant to cause exactly the result that ensued: the cancellation of the Yiannopoulos talk at the university. Whether they were mainly leftists, anarchists, or some combination of the two, if one is inclined to throw around epithets such as “Nazis,” the “outside agitators” were the ones who fit the term the best of all the players in this incident.
Who was most at fault? The police (or rather, whoever gave them their orders), for not controlling the riot and violence with greater force and more arrests? To me, that is the answer. Why should law-breaking thugs get their way? I’m not the only one asking that question:
Police officers came prepared in riot gear and about 100 outside agitators aimed at causing chaos came armed with sticks and rocks. Some set off fireworks in the middle of Sproul Plaza. Others threw objects at UC police.
And as the violence escalated, officers pulled back.
Susan Walsh was stuck on the second floor of UC Berkeley’s student union building where she was waiting to hear Yiannopolous speak when protests outside turned violent.
“It was a riot. It felt like a war zone,” said Walsh. “Absolutely felt like a war zone.”
Police gathered on the balcony demanding that the crowd disperse, but made no moves against the protesters.
“They were equipped to shoot rubber bullets or what have you, and they really didn’t do anything. And, I thought, ‘We are sitting ducks,’” said Walsh.
When asked why police didn’t move in and stop the rioters, UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof replied, “Police tactics are driven on a campus by need, the non-negotiable need to protect our students and ensure their well being.”
University officials said police decided to stay back to prevent injuring innocent protesters and bystanders who could have been hurt if officers waded into the crowd.
And what about who could have gotten hurt if they didn’t wade into the crowd? What about the danger of letting rioters have their way? What sort of message of weakness and chaos does that deliver?
Despite the destruction and violence, there was only one arrest by university police. City of Berkeley police, who monitored the demonstration once it left the university, said they made no arrests.
University police said that some members of the crowd were attacked by protesters and then rescued by police. UC police said there were six reports of minor injuries.
Berkeley police said once the protest moved into city streets, rioters vandalized 15 buildings. Again, police did not move to take the vandals into custody.
The article does not make it clear whether most of the policing was done by university or by city police, and who set the policy. Is this sort of thing standard operating procedure for policing riots in Berkeley? That wouldn’t be surprising, considering the politics of the city.
And then there was the reaction of President Trump, who tweeted:
If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?
Well, Trump did write “if.” But U.C. Berkeley doesn’t seem to have done that. A few Berkeley students may have; we don’t even know whether students were involved in the violence (we would have known more if the police had made more arrests, but they didn’t). The university administration was planning to allow “free speech”. The talk by Yiannopolis was scheduled to go forward until safety issues arose, and that’s when the prospective speaker was ushered out of there—for his own safety and for the safety of students, not because the university wasn’t giving him a platform. Nor did the university “practice violence on innocent people with a different point of view.” So Trump’s threat is most likely mere theater, but if he really did cut off Berkeley’s funds for this particular incident (I don’t think he will) he would be abusing his power.
However, there is also no question that Berkeley (university and town) has one of the most extreme and unrelievedly leftist atmospheres of any college campus, and that’s saying something. University leftists these days are often advocates of shutting down speakers with whom they disagree, particularly speakers on the right. This is one of the many ways in which discourse in this country has degenerated in recent years.
The police let these riots get out of control, but the Berkeley administration wasn’t exactly a profile in courage, either. I don’t have enough information to say whether or not they really needed to cancel the talk or whether they caved prematurely. But I do know that their capitulation was in line with a process that’s been going on at universities for at least fifty years, and which Allan Bloom discussed in his book The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987.
I’ve written a great many posts on the subject of the universities’ cowardly responses to pressures of the mob (and about its devotion to PC thought), but I’ll just highlight this post right now, which I hope you’ll read. Again, what happened at Berkeley regarding Yiannopoulos was not the same, but it sends a similar message of university weakness and lack to resolve, a message received by thugs who would dearly love—and who definitely intend—to exploit those weaknesses to their own advantage.
Here’s a quote from my older post:
…Bloom describes the moral collapse of the faculty and administration of so many universities during the 60s, their abject and craven failure to defend their own principles, and their eager willingness to cave to threats and intimidation.
The Cornell incident that Bloom describes in the book was quite different in its details than what happened at Berkeley; it involved the administration’s capitulation to students’ threats of violence. But both incidents and others show that university administrators have become unable to defend their own supposed principles against the pressures of the mob.