2017 was a tumultuous year for the University of California, Berkeley. A number of conservative or moderate speakers were invited to speak at UC Berkeley last year, and many were met with efforts to prevent them from speaking or outright violence. Most prominent were the protests of Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos’ speaking events. Both protests resulted in property damage and assault.
Obviously, something needed to be done. The UC Berkeley’s Chancellor, Carol Christ, empaneled a Commission on Free Speech in October 2017. The Commission released its report in April, though I only found out about it recently when a YouTuber, Matt Christiansen, released a video about the report in early May.
I recommend you go watch it in its entirety, but I think a good summary of his thesis is that the Commission misdiagnoses the problems and thus advances bad solutions. The fixes that the Commission on Free Speech advocates for will not protect free speech or reduce campus violence.
He also points out that Berkeley also blames largely external sources for their problems: The Berkeley report states “the rise of ultra-conservative rhetoric, including white supremacist views and protest marches, legitimized by the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, encouraged far-right and alt-right activists to ‘spike the football’ at Berkeley. This provoked an at-times violent (and condemnable) response from the extreme left, tearing at the campus’s social fabric . . . Berkeley remains a tolerant campus . . . at least some of the 2017 events at Berkeley can now be seen to be part of a coordinated campaign to organize appearances on American campuses likely to incite a violent reaction, in order to advance a facile narrative that universities are not tolerant of conservative speech.”
I hate to break it to you, UC Berkeley, but if you have people violently responding to conservative speakers, you’re not a university that’s tolerant of conservative speech. It may be a narrative but given the events that transpired, it seems unfair to call it facile.
In fact, it’s pretty strange that the college blames outside forces that occurred nationwide. For the time being, we can grant the Commission the benefit of the doubt and say that they might be on to something. But the rise of ultra-conservative rhetoric, white supremacy, and the election of Donald Trump are things that happened nationwide. Why then did some of the most violent events, and some of the only violent events happen at Berkeley?
What specifically made Berkeley respond differently than the rest of the country?
And, if they college was targeted, why did the targeting work?
Unfortunately, these are not the questions that the Commission asked.
I ask these questions not because I have readily-available answers, but because I want to dive into the proposed solutions and try to figure out which problems they solve, if any.
I’m interested, in particular, in the following line from the recommendations given by the Commission:
“[T]he Commission believes an RSO [Registered Student Organization] or other nondepartmental host wishing to stage a potentially disruptive event should be asked to do the following . . .”
Before we even look at what these groups are being asked to do, we need to take a look at when they’re being asked to do it.
Specifically, it’s not all hosts, just those who “[wish] to stage a potentially disruptive event.”
At which point, we must ask, “potentially disruptive by whose definition?”
What exactly makes an event disruptive? And who gets to decide? How knowable is disruption in advance of the event? And how liable are the people who invited the speaker, as it’s the protestors doing the actual disruption?
This vague phrase leaves all student organizations in an impermissibly gray area. Will they be punished if an event they intended to be peaceful turns disruptive?
Would it just be easier, more straightforward, and perhaps fairer, to require all student-run events to submit the requested documentation?
As it stands, this requirement disproportionately targets student organizations that run events with speakers whose ideas aren’t popular. Popular ideas are rarely protested. And in this instance, the group with the unpopular ideas is the conservatives.
Furthermore, this places a lot of power in the hands of their opponents. Just threatening to cause disruption suddenly makes the event organizers have to jump through more hoops than other organizations.
Let’s take a look at what those hoops are.
The first one listed, “Assume full organizational . . . responsibility throughout the planning process and be able to answer any questions about the event, even if funding comes largely from outside sources,” is not objectionable, although it is unclear if every member must be able to answer all questions or just an appointed member.
The second one causes me some concern. Student organizations must “Have volunteers from the campus community assist at potentially disruptive events they sponsor, in a ratio of one volunteer per 50 expected participants.”
There’s that worrisome phrasing again, “potentially disruptive,” but beyond that, this disproportionately affects small student groups that manage to attract awesome speakers. Again, a group that will be hurt by this is the conservatives.
And then there’s the third hoop: Student Organizations must “[s]ubmit a public statement in support of events that require additional security, addressing (a) the rationale for the event, (b) what new perspectives the event will bring to discussion on campus, and (c) how the event is consistent with Berkeley’s Principles of Community.”
To be fair, the Commission does say that “these obligations must be imposed on a viewpoint- and content-neutral basis,” and that “the public statement required” not “be officially vetted or reviewed, much less that it be used as a basis for determining whether the planned event may go forward.”
However, the Commission is mistaken. Since the public statement is required for events to go forward, it is, in fact, officially reviewed. Someone must ensure that it gets done before the event can be scheduled.
So, what happens if it isn’t filled out to that person’s satisfaction?
I’m not suggesting that they disagree with the rationale, but rather, that by their judgment something is filled out wrong. Let’s say that only a sentence was written for one of the sections, or that the answer on another section doesn’t really answer the question.
Is the person doing the judging able to pull the plug, and if so, what criteria must they adhere to?
It bothers me deeply that only some organizations and some events will be required to jump through these extra hoops. It’s an economic fact that adding difficulty to a process in the form of time and effort means that fewer people will finish it.
And it also bothers me that the university has cut itself so much leeway in figuring out when to apply these rules. It appears, to me at least, to be completely based on their subjective judgment. These are problems that need to be fixed.
I also can’t help but notice that these rules almost seem to be custom-crafted to have a chilling effect on conservative thought without outright banning it.
I suppose you could suggest that it was retaliatory. You bring speakers that may or may not be unpopular and we’ll restrict your option of doing so.
But I don’t think that’s the case.
I think the bias that contributed to the violent reactions to speeches is at play here. Now we know what separates Berkeley from the rest of the country, a fact this Commission was never able to uncover.