SECOND UPDATE: One of the students who invited Coulter to Berkeley, on behalf of a group called BridgeUSA, has this oped in the Washington Post. Here are a few key passages:
National media coverage of Coulter’s visit mostly overlooked BridgeUSA’s role and our plan for the event, instead reporting that the incident was a repeat of the Yiannopoulos fracas — exactly what we set out to avoid.
Antifa and other “black-bloc” groups that are able to organize do so far beyond the perimeters of our campus, and they receive an insignificant amount of support from Berkeley students, if any. But in national news, all that’s seen is violence and destruction being used to censor speech.
Conservative groups, in their attempt to frame this complex series of events as a “free speech battle” by suing Berkeley’s administration, have used the label of free speech as a tool for publicity. Our organization prides itself on the values of free inquiry and discourse, yet we understand the impossible trade-off that the university faces: the administration is caught between upholding its commitment to free speech and its responsibility for student safety.
The administration attempted to work with us, to propose alternative dates this semester and next semester where a defensible venue would be available. In balancing the concerns of protecting students and allowing peaceful protest, they never backed down from their commitment to help us bring Coulter to campus. It is easy and expedient to blame the university in this situation, but that avoids the actual problem. The true issue here is not the way that the university handled this situation; rather, it is the fact that this trade-off between student safety and free speech even exists in the first place.
FIRST UPDATE: Chancellor Dirks has this oped in today's [April 27] New York Times.
ORIGINAL POST: The letter below was circulated today [April 26] by Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks regarding the Ann Coulter situation. The story he tells is considerably different from the one generally reported in the press. I have bolded the key passages:
To the Members of the Berkeley Campus Community,
As I write this, I am aware of the uncertainty surrounding Ann Coulter’s stated intention to come to campus tomorrow afternoon. We will be sending out a separate message later today with updated information about safety arrangements, as well as our hopes and expectations regarding how members of our campus community should conduct themselves. For now, I want to share my thoughts about all that has led up to the current situation in which we find ourselves.
This University has two non-negotiable commitments, one to Free Speech, the other to the safety of our campus community members, their guests, and the public. In that context, we cannot ignore or deny what is a new reality. Groups and individuals from the extreme ends of the political spectrum have made clear their readiness and intention to utilize violent tactics in support or in protest of certain speakers at UC Berkeley. In early February, a speaker’s presence on campus ignited violent conflict and significant damage to campus property. In March, political violence erupted on the streets of Berkeley. In April opposing groups again violently clashed on the edge of our campus. While some seem inclined to use these events and circumstances to draw attention to themselves, we remain focused on the needs, rights, and interests of our students and our community. We cannot wish away or pretend that these threats do not exist.
The strategies necessary to address these evolving threats are also evolving, but the simplistic view of some – that our police department can simply step in and stop violent confrontations whenever they occur – ignores reality. Protecting public safety in these circumstances requires a multifaceted approach. This approach must take into account the use of “time, place, and manner” guidelines, devised according to the specific threats presented. Because threats or strategic concerns may differ, so must our approach. In all cases, however, we only seek to ensure the successful staging of free speech rights; we make no effort to control or restrict the content of expression, regardless of differing political views.
This is a University, not a battlefield. We must make every effort to hold events at a time and location that maximizes the chances that First Amendment rights can be successfully exercised and that community members can be protected. While our commitment to freedom of speech and expression remains absolute, we have an obligation to heed our police department’s assessment of how best to hold safe and successful events.
In relation to the invitation made by a student group for Ann Coulter to speak at Berkeley this week, we have therefore to take seriously the intelligence UCPD has regarding threats of violence that could endanger our students, our community, and perhaps even Ms Coulter herself. It is specific, significant, and real. Yet, despite those threats we have, and will remain ready, to welcome her to campus, and assume the risks, challenges, and expenses that will attend her visit. That is demanded by our commitment to Free Speech. What we will not do is allow our students, other members of the campus community, and the public to be needlessly endangered by permitting an event to be held in a venue that our police force does not believe to be protectable. If UCPD believes there is a significant security threat attendant to a particular event, we cannot allow it to be held in a venue with a limited number of exits; in a hall that cannot be cordoned off; in an auditorium with floor to ceiling glass; in any space that does not meet basic safety criteria established by UCPD. This is the sole reason we could not accommodate Ms. Coulter on April 27th, and the very reason we offered her alternative dates in early May and September, when venues that satisfy safety requirements are available.
Contrary to some press reports and circulating narratives, the UC Berkeley administration did not cancel the Coulter event and has never prohibited Ms. Coulter from coming on campus. Instead, we received a request to provide a venue on one single day, chosen unilaterally by a student group without any prior consultation with campus administration or law enforcement. After substantial evaluation and planning by our law enforcement professionals, we were forced to inform the group that, in light of specific and serious security threats that UCPD’s intelligence had identified, there was no campus venue available at a time on that date where the event could be held safely and without disruption. We offered an alternative date for the event (which was rejected) and offered to work with the group to find dates in the future when the event could occur. Throughout this process our effort has been to support our students’ desire to hold their event safely and successfully.
Sadly and unfortunately, concern for student safety seems to be in short supply in certain quarters. We believe that once law enforcement professionals determine there are security risks attendant to a particular event, speakers need to focus on what they actually want to achieve. If it is to speak to a large audience, to make a case for their positions, to engage students in discourse, we stand ready to make that work on any date when a protectable venue is available. If, on the other hand, the objective is stir up conflict and violence without regard for the safety, rights, and interests of others in order to advance personal interests we cannot abandon our commitment to the safety of our community members.
We will work cooperatively with members of our campus community who would sponsor events to ensure that those events can occur and that the campus can actually benefit from the dialogue their invited speakers might generate. To this end, we are working to clarify our policies and practices so that all know what is expected and how sponsors can best engage us to facilitate the success of their planned events. We trust that cooperation and good will among the members of our own community can help us jointly defend our campus against the threats to both speech and safety currently being posed by outside groups.
And here is the statement issued today by FIRE (boldface in original):
FIRE statement on the cancellation of Ann Coulter’s speech at UC Berkeley
Today, Ann Coulter announced that she will no longer attempt to speak at the University of California, Berkeley tomorrow, Thursday, April 27, because of safety concerns. This latest success for those willing to threaten or engage in violence in order to silence a campus speaker establishes a genuinely dangerous precedent.
Public colleges and universities have a legal duty to protect First Amendment rights. They also have a responsibility to do their best to protect all those present on campus from threats to their physical safety. But curtailing the rights of a speaker in the name of safety is wrong unless absolutely necessary, and canceling a speech must be the very last resort. Otherwise, restricting or silencing a speaker is simply a capitulation to violence or threats.
No university may be considered “safe” if speakers voicing unpopular ideas on its campus incur a substantial risk of being physically attacked. A university where people or viewpoints are likely to be opposed with fists rather than argumentation is unworthy of the name. Granting those willing to use violence the power to determine who may speak on campus is an abdication of UC Berkeley’s moral and legal responsibilities under the First Amendment.
In the wake of the violence at UC Berkeley on Feb. 1, we at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) counseled patience, given that UC Berkeley professed to have been caught off-guard and that it promised an investigation into what happened. Nearly two months later, and after multiple incidents of political violence in the adjoining City of Berkeley, the university still appears to be unprepared to ensure the safety of a controversial speaker, attendees, or peaceful protesters.
Moving forward, UC Berkeley must be properly prepared to host and protect speakers of all stripes. FIRE also calls for UC Berkeley’s promised investigation to go forward with thoroughness and transparency, and that its findings be made public without delay. The health of our democracy demands no less.