The University of California, Berkeley is embroiled in another free speech battle over its failure to accommodate a speaking engagement for conservative author Ben Shapiro.
Last week, the Berkeley College Republicans (BCR) emailed a University Student Affairs representative requesting a space for Shapiro to speak near the center of campus on September 14th at 7:00 PM, asking that the space accommodate 500 people.
“This date is nearly ten weeks away from today, which should give the University plenty of time to work with us to identify an appropriate space in the next two weeks so we can properly publicize the location and other details of this planned event,” the conservative student group wrote in an email exchange forwarded to The Daily Beast by UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof.
The Dean of Students and Student Affairs office responded that, “despite extensive efforts,” they could not secure a venue meeting BCR’s criteria on the date and time requested. They proposed several dates this week for a meeting with university security to “gather needed information” about the event, and said they had tentatively reserved several smaller venues on September 14th and larger venues later that month, some of which might require rental fees.
They also cautioned that a security review might “preclude the use of some of these venues and/or rule out certain hours for the event,” but stressed that Shapiro, who has spoken at the University before, is welcome there and that UC Berkeley is “committed to supporting his, and your, rights to free speech.”
“Until these most recent events, we’ve hosted dozens and dozens of events across the political spectrum without issue. It is clear that things have changed in terms of security, in terms of planning for certain speakers and types of events,” Mogulof told the East Bay Times.
“Having said that, our police department has yet to conduct a review, and the possibility remains that Shapiro could speak without any extraordinary measures.”
Speaking to The Daily Beast on Thursday, Shapiro said he is “hopeful that the University fulfills the pledges that they’re making, but somewhat skeptical that’s what’s happening here considering I spoke on their campus to a hall of 300 in April 2016 with far less time in advance and no problems.
"I understand the security situation has changed, but did they not expect that there would be another conservative attempt to come on campus and that they wouldn’t have to figure out security for that? If the venues were booked, they should have specified other dates and times when spaces were available.
“I don’t want anybody to be unsafe,” he continued, “but the question is whether they are using these security concerns to postpone or cancel the event, which would not be surprising since they’ve done this in the past.”
The University’s inability to immediately accommodate Shapiro comes several months after the Berkeley College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation, a conservative advocacy group, filed a lawsuit against the University claiming it had stifled conservative speech on campus.
Earlier this year, the University cancelled a planned speech by former Breitbart columnist and alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos when riots broke out the night of his appearance on campus.
More than 100 “black bloc” anarchists tore down police barricades, smashed windows, started fires and attacked both police and Trump supporters who had turned up for the event. Free speech fundamentalists criticized the University for failing to protect First Amendment rights, while others insisted that UC Berkeley had no choice but to cancel the event amidst safety threats.
Several months later, the University--famed as the birthplace of the Free Speech movement in the mid-1960s--again cited safety concerns when they cancelled another speech by conservative pundit Ann Coulter, who, like Yiannopoulos, had been invited to campus by the Berkeley College Republicans. University officials proposed another date during a week when no classes were held. Coulter did not show up.
The Berkeley College Republicans argue that the University’s failure to secure a venue for Shapiro is yet another example of its ideological battle against conservatives.
In a statement, Naweed Tahmas, vice president of the Berkeley College Republicans, criticized the University’s continued “shameful tactic of hiding behind vague safety concerns” and argued that Coulter’s speech was cancelled for nought.
“Ultimately, after massive police presence the day of Ms. Coulter's proposed speaking date, the Anti-Fascists and other left-wing groups did not show. In fact, they released an oped stating that they had no intentions or plans to disrupt Ms. Coulter's speaking engagement at UC Berkeley.
“After cancelling our last three events, UC Berkeley has solidified itself as an ideological echo chamber, as only favored viewpoints may be heard on campus with no meaningful opposition or challenge permitted. This is a disservice to students as it is incumbent upon universities to expose students to a breadth of different ideological views.”
Tahmas did not respond to a Daily Beast email asking if BCR would continue to work with UC Berkeley’s Dean of Students and Student Affairs office to secure a venue for Shapiro’s speech.
UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof told The Daily Beast that the event policy referenced in emails between BCR and Berkeley Student Affairs is a “standard process for every student organization.”
But BCR and the Young America’s Foundation insist the policy has perpetuated discrimination against conservative speakers.
“It’s laughable that the University can say [Shapiro] is welcome on their campus and then paragraphs later say that there’s no room for him,” said Spencer Brown, a spokesperson for Young America’s Foundation. “This is a pattern we’ve seen before. While they host liberal and leftists speakers on campus, they continue to castigate conservatives and deny their requests for an equal platform. This suppression of First Amendment rights is why we filed a lawsuit earlier in the spring.”
UPDATE: Late Thursday afternoon, UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof told The Daily Beast that the University has now determined that there are other venues available on September 14 that meet BCR’s criteria for Shapiro’s speaking engagement--and that the University will underwrite costs for those venues, if need be.
“It is now not a matter of if it’s going to happen, it is simply a matter of exactly where and when it will happen on the 14th,” said Mogulof. “And to nail all of that down we have to discuss the details with the Berkeley College Republicans, just as we do with every other campus group for speaking events. We are ready to go but we need to have a partner at the table. The way to do it is not through the media.”