Berkeley’s Leader Saw Hints That ‘Free Speech Week’ Was a Stunt. Here’s Why She Planned for It Anyway.

September 26, 2017

n the days and weeks leading up to his planned Free Speech Week at the University of California at Berkeley, Milo Yiannopoulos talked a big game about the murderer’s row of conservative speakers he had assembled. But last week Chancellor Carol Christ was coming to doubt that he ever actually intended to go through with the event.

Now that Free Speech Week has fizzled, she said in an interview on Tuesday that she remains unconvinced.

Last week, Ms. Christ said, it became clearer and clearer the event was a “fiction,” following a series of deadlines missed by the sponsoring student group, disavowals from promised speakers who said they had been listed without their knowledge, and general confusion and miscommunication. 

On Saturday, two days before what was supposed to be the start of a four-day festival, the Berkeley Patriot, the student group sponsoring Free Speech Week, announced that it was canceling all of its planned events. Weeks of hype culminated in a short appearance by Mr. Yiannopoulos, the campus provocateur, in the heavily policed Sproul Plaza on Sunday. He spoke for about 20 minutes before leaving. (Mr. Yiannopoulos has said he was told to evacuate because of protesters in the area.) 

The appearance may have been anticlimactic, but it wasn’t cheap. Security, the university estimated, cost Berkeley about $800,000.

Ms. Christ doesn’t know what to make of it all. She said the goal could have been to create called an “attractive narrative for the alt-right” — an episode that would end either with the university canceling the speech or perhaps with a riot that would force law enforcement to intercede. The former result would provide grist for Mr. Yiannopoulos’s portrayal of Berkeley as antipathetic to free expression; the latter would feed his critiques of the “violent left.”

Ms. Christ has started to think of the event as a counterpoint to another one held earlier this month at Berkeley: a speech by the conservative commentator and speaker Ben Shapiro. In that case, the Berkeley College Republicans invited Mr. Shapiro to speak, and he did so, albeit surrounded by a heavy police presence. In that case, Ms. Christ said, the goal appeared to be the stated one. The act of speaking to college students was more important than whatever digital imprint Mr. Shapiro’s lecture might have made.

With Mr. Yiannopoulos, the goal appeared to be reversed, she said.

“What was the object was whatever digital event could be created from this extraordinarily strange set of circumstances,” Ms. Christ told The Chronicle. “And what was the shadow was anything real.”

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The Chronicle of Higher Education