Last Thursday, conservative speaker Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak at the University of California, Berkeley campus. However, due to concerns from school officials about an outbreak of violent protest, the speech was canceled. At first glance, the concerns may seem ridiculous. How could UC Berkeley, a champion of free speech, deny conservative speakers based on potential violence? However, in the last several months, Berkeley has practically become a battleground between the far left and right.
On February 1st, alt-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos had planned to give a speech to UC Berkeley students. The event was met by unprecedented riots and violent attacks against both individuals and property. The hundreds of masked protesters were largely comprised of student-led groups and some outside groups. Taking the name of anti-fascists and anarchists, protesters smashed windows and set fires. They launched commercial-grade fireworks, ignited Molotov cocktails, and threw rocks at police.
Yiannopoulos’ speech was long canceled due to safety concerns, but the violence raged on. Rioters assaulted many individuals conducting interviews during the violence, including two Berkeley College Republicans and a woman that was pepper sprayed in her eyes. Even a Syrian Muslim was struck with a rod and pepper sprayed by a protester that said “You look like a Nazi.” After countless arrests, when the riots subsided, Berkeley faced an outrageous $100,000 worth of property damage.
After the dust settled, UC Berkeley faced a serious question. Is it going to stand for violence against opinions it doesn’t agree with? Or will it fight for free speech and the free exchange of ideas, even if they are deemed ‘hateful’?
Liberal Ideas in Colleges
Universities have traditionally been a welcoming home for liberal thought. Popular among the younger generation, liberal ideas have flourished on college campuses, from the youth counterculture of the 1960’s to liberal movements like the gender revolution today.
And the UC Berkeley campus is the epicenter of that change.
However, at the same time, Berkeley leads another widespread shift in university politics. College campuses are becoming increasingly polarized. Conservative activists at Berkeley find it difficult to start political discussion. According to members of the College Republicans group, Republicans are spat on by their classmates, their “signs are ripped up,” and they are constantly labeled as ‘fascists’. And unfortunately for the probable majority of moderate liberals, their voices are drowned out by the violence of the far-left.
To be fair, these conservative speakers- and the activists inviting them- may be intentionally provocative. Milo Yiannopoulos was (at the time) a senior editor of the news network Breitbart, a right-wing site made infamous for “fake news” stories during the 2016 election cycle. He is known for “trolling” liberals and college administrators: Yiannopoulos actually leads a self-proclaimed “dangerous faggot tour” across many liberal-dominated universities, often celebrating the schools that lead protests against him. Meanwhile, Ann Coulter was little better. She approached one of the most liberal colleges in the country, one that is clearly struggling with maintaining its ideal of free speech, with a topic as controversial as illegal immigration. However, despite a likely intention to stir conflict, the far left at Berkeley continues to take the bait and resort to violent protest.
UC Berkeley and Free Speech
Ironically, UC Berkeley used to be a champion of classically liberal ideas, once known for its unparalleled student activism from the Free Speech Movement and anti-war protests of the 1960’s. In activism unprecedented in scope, students fought for their rights to exercise their political beliefs and free expression on campus. They openly spoke against the government and encouraged others to share their different voices.
Meanwhile, today’s ‘progressive’ ideology instead preaches tolerance of diversity- whether that be race, gender, or sexuality. Diversity is great and should be encouraged- as long as it isn’t diversity of thought. Conservatives are shut out from political discussion, and that only helps to alienate them more from their peers. In a twisted irony, conservatives are now the ones fighting for their right to have a voice. Truly, one of the greatest tragedies of the modern left is the transition of free speech from a liberal idea to a conservative one. When did it become an idea of the past to give every American a voice?
Will UC Berkeley be able to recover from its violent and discriminatory reputation? It’s hard to say, but one thing is for sure. The problems are getting worse, and at this rate, free speech at colleges is coming to an end.