Berkeley, Calif. — When computer science major Lindsay Nichols considers the possibility of a “Free Speech Week” featuring right-wing firebrands at the University of California, Berkeley, the first word that comes to her mind is “annoyance.”
Biology student Kyeong Kim agrees. She’s all for free speech but the prospect of more political clashes and the disruptions they bring draws a big shrug.
“It’s the new normal here: The police, the helicopters,” says Kim, 24, an international student from South Korea. “I stay away. I don’t want to get caught in a violent protest.”
Berkeley’s reputation as a liberal stronghold and the birthplace of the 1960s Free Speech Movement has made the city and campus flashpoints for the country’s political divisions since the election of President Donald Trump.
The four-day event scheduled to start Sunday was organized by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, whose previous attempt to speak on campus in February was shut down by masked anarchists who rioted on campus.
Yiannopoulos says he’s coming back with a lineup of high-profile conservatives, but the star power faded Friday when conservative commentator Ann Coulter announced she’s not coming.
Coulter told The Associated Press that Yiannopoulos’ team was in touch with hers about speaking but she heard “the administration was dead set on blocking this event” so she decided not to bother.
“I also don’t think Berkeley deserves to hear a brilliant and entertaining Ann Coulter speech,” Coulter told the AP in an email.
Steve Bannon, ex-chief strategist for President Donald Trump, is also on Yiannopoulos’ list but has not said publicly if he plans to attend.
A number of other listed speakers have posted comments on social media saying they don’t plan to show up either. Among them is James Damore, a former Google employee who was fired for writing a memo viewed as sexist. He tweeted that he never knew he was on the list.
Amid the uncertainty, the university is preparing strong security expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Students have been warned to expect several days of disruptions caused by heavy police lines and protest barriers, the possible closure of buildings and roads, and events scheduled to take place outdoors on the central hub of campus known as Sproul Plaza.
“It’s more of an annoyance than anything,” said Nichols, a 20-year-old junior, adding that some teachers have told students they can skip class if they’re concerned about safety.
“I’m just trying to get an education, and there’s these SWAT teams everywhere,” Nichols said.
Four political demonstrations, starting with the Yiannopoulos event last February, have turned violent and prompted authorities to come up with new strategies as they struggle to balance free speech rights with preventing violence.
University of California President Janet Napolitano, who oversees the 10 campuses in the UC system, said her office is taking the unprecedented step of splitting security costs with UC Berkeley despite the current financial struggles of the system.
UC Berkeley shelled out $600,000 for security last week when conservative Ben Shapiro spoke at an event organized by campus Republicans. Napolitano said UC will split that expense as well.
“In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to put that much money into security,” said Napolitano, who previously served as U.S. Homeland Security secretary under President Obama.
Ahead of the event next week, student bulletin boards on Sproul Plaza were papered with fliers calling on counter protesters to “Shut Down Milo Yiannopoulos,” saying his brand of inflammatory speech against Muslims, immigrants, women and transgender people was hateful and should not be allowed. The fliers advised supporters to bring bandannas to cover their faces in case police fire tear gas.
Faculty members are divided over the event, with many saying the university must defend free speech and respond to hate speech. Others say the university should not provide a platform for provocative speakers whose presence could trigger violence.
More than 200 professors and graduate student instructors have signed a letter calling for an all-campus boycott of classes if the event goes ahead.
“The history of these events has been chilling,” the letter states, citing deadly violence last month in the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, where protesters clashed with white supremacists.
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