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Saturday, November 10, 2018

Saturday, November 10, 2018

California Campus Republicans and Their Free Speech Masquerade

By Robert Cohen (New York University)

The release of the California College Republican’s Platform has attracted press attention because of its extreme right wing positions demonizing the university as “degenerate and murderous” -- denouncing university support of transgender rights, undocumented students, Mexican and Muslim student organizations, and funding of birth control, and abortion.  But what the media coverage of the platform missed was the brazen dishonesty of these college Republicans’ discussion of free speech on campus. Indeed, the charge  of attempted censorship that the platform makes against  the UC Berkeley administration, with regard to the campus appearance of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, is not merely misleading and false; it is by far the biggest lie I have ever encountered from student activists in the more than 30 years  I have spent studying, publishing books and articles, and teaching courses on American student politics. There was no attempted censorship of Shapiro at Cal, and the charge that there was represents an attempt by these right wing students to masquerade as free speech martyrs, which would be laughable were it not for the fact that such lying defames a Berkeley campus administration that has in reality ardently supported (and spent millions of dollars protecting) the free speech rights of conservative speakers at UC Berkeley.

What the California College Republicans’ Platform said was that the Shapiro incident at UC Berkeley was an “example” of  the “attempt” by campus “administrators” to “suppress… free expression” of “conservative students…. The University of California at Berkeley attempted to prevent Berkeley College Republicans (BCR) from bringing conservative speaker Ben Shapiro by forcing BCR to pay for his $600,000 security bill necessitated by violent leftist demonstrators.” This a complete fabrication. UC Berkeley never sought to force the BCR to pay an astronomical security fee. Nor did UC Berkeley in any way seek to prevent Shapiro’s appearance. Quite the opposite. The administration did everything in its power to make that appearance possible and to ensure its safety. 

Here are the facts. Back in July 2017 the BCR applied for a large room to accommodate the Shapiro event, which it planned to hold in mid-September.  It turned out that none of the  large rooms used for student events at Cal  were available on the date the BCR requested. So to ensure that this conservative speaking event could occur anyway, the Berkeley administration took the extraordinary step of making available Zellerbach Hall – whose large auditorium  had  usually been a venue for concerts and major cultural events, and in the past had rarely if ever been made available for student speaking events.  The administration even agreed that it would pay the Zellerbach venue fee, something it had never done for any student political organization. In other words, the UC Berkeley administration was leaning over backwards to accommodate Shapiro’s talk, even subsidizing it, so much so that Berkeley’s left-leaning student newspaper, The Daily Californian complained of administration favoritism towards the BCR.  

Yes, security costs for the Shapiro event in September 2017, most of which were paid for by the university, were expensive. But that was not merely – as the Republicans claimed – because of concerns about “violent leftist demonstrators,” but also  because in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy (where a white supremacist murdered an anti-racist protester) there were fears that violent right wing extremists might come to the Berkeley campus to assault their leftist counterparts and students of color. Indeed, there had been street battles in Berkeley during the summer of 2017 between extremists on the right and left. So the university spent for for the necessary security to prevent such violence and to ensure that there was no repetition of the riot of February 1, 2017, when a paramilitary force of some 150 masked anarchists invaded the Berkeley campus,  threatening public safety, doing $100,000 in property damage to the university, forcing the cancellation of a speech by the  bigoted, foul mouthed, far right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Thus the administration brought in an army of police, closed five campus buildings, and had police barricades set up on Sproul Plaza to establish a security perimeter that made violence or rioting impossible, enabling the Shapiro event to occur with no disruption.

These security measures were  costly not only  in terms of money (despite a serious budget deficit Cal spent some $800,000 on the Shapiro event) but the disruption of the academic lives of many students, who could not access the services of the offices that were closed the afternoon of the Shapiro event.  This led to  complaints from students, faculty, and staff that for the sake of an unpopular speaker brought by one small student organization (the BCR), regular functions of the university had been halted. Cal’s chancellor Carol Christ, heard such complaints. But she had declared that this, her first year in office would be “free speech year,” because at Berkeley – home of the Free Speech Movement – “free speech is who we are.” And so to protect Berkeley’s vaunted free speech tradition she opened herself up to such criticism and had the university absorb the financial costs as well, all to prove that right wing speakers could come to the university to exercise their First Amendment rights. 

As to the BCR, its expenses for the Shapiro event were modest, paying only a  security fee of $9,162, which was dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands of dollars the university paid in actual security costs. In fact, had the UC Berkeley administration not covered for the BCR the venue rental for Zellerbach Hall these conservative students would have had to pay another $13,274.02 to have hosted Shaprio in its grand auditorium. 

In a more rational era, campus conservatives would be grateful that Cal had subsidized their celebrity speaker and that they had a chancellor so committed to free speech that she went to such extraordinary lengths to ensure the Shapiro event’s success and  safety. But since this is the Trump era, where much of the American right wing  disregards truth whenever it finds doing so useful for its favorite sport of liberal-bashing, we end up with dishonest statements from the CCR accusing the "liberal" University of California administration of an imaginary free speech violation. Indeed, it was Trump himself who set the standard for such dishonesty when on February 2, 2017 his blame (and threaten) the victim tweet falsely implied that UC Berkeley had caused the anti-Yiannopoulos riot, sought to suppress conservative speech, and should therefore lose its federal funding. Actually, UC Berkeley’s administration insisted on Yiannopoulos’ right to speak on campus  despite pressures to cancel the  speech on account of his record of using campus podiums to mock, bully,  and invade the privacy of a transgender student and to foment bigotry and political violence. It was only when the riot perpetrated by an invasion of club-wielding (mostly non-student) anarchists  threatened the public safety that the speech was cancelled.

The riot is, of course, evidence that a militant, violent wing of the  Bay Area Left is hostile to the free speech rights of the far right. It is also true that amidst the 2016 presidential election season made extraordinary tense because of Trump’s nativist, Islamophobic, white nationalist campaign, BCR members were sometimes treated like pariahs by leftist students, and that campus conservatives at times faced verbal and even physical intimidation from their political foes at Cal. But such problems – serious as they are – do not justify inaccurate and ideologically motivated attacks on the university  administration itself, which consistently opposed such intolerance. 

The reality is that just in the last spring semester alone, the BCR had, with the UC administration’s support, hosted such conservative speakers as Charlie Kirk, Rick Santorum, Heather MacDonald, Candace Owens, Dave Ruben, Steve Simpson Antonia Oakfor, and Allie Stuckey. Even Yiannopoulos, who would, as with Shapiro, cost the university a fortune in security,  in September 2017,  returned to Cal for a campus appearance and gave a speech so brief and vacuous that UC spokesperson Dan Moguloff referred to it as “the most expensive photo-op in Cal’s history.” So for even the crudest and most irresponsible of  right wing speakers (Yiannopoulos, who just this week expressed regret that the pipe bombs sent to critics of Trump  had not detonated ) free speech is alive and well at UC Berkeley. But so is the free speech masquerade in which the California  state Republican student leadership continues to pose as free speech martyrs, repressed by an administration that actually has consistently championed the free speech rights of conservatives.  


California Policy Issues said...

The free speech issue is now, and will always be, a loser for the left. Shapiro is not a Milo What's-his-name type of speaker. I'm not sure that Shapiro should be lumped with speakers of the "far right." Our incoming governor Gavin Newsom has appeared on his radio show, for example. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSJZogu2wW8 If Shapiro is invited, his talk should not become a major brouhaha. Those who don't want to hear him should ignore him or maybe, at most, engage in some kind of peaceful demonstration that doesn't interrupt the meeting. Until that is possible, there will continue to be the same result; the left will be the loser. It's unfortunate that there are off-campus folks who at present make it difficult to have a speaker without the threat of violence. But there are problems on campus that need addressing. Take a look at https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/UC-Berkeley-campus-senator-abstains-from-a-vote-13378621.php for a very recent incident that doesn't involve violence, and was not written by some right-wing demagogue:
'A student senator at UC Berkeley abstained from a vote supporting transgender rights last week, then took a moment to explain her thinking. Now, more than 1,000 people have signed a petition demanding that she resign from student government or face a recall.
Hundreds packed a Senate meeting Wednesday night to insist that she go. On social media, students labeled her a “horrible person” and a “mental imbecile.” Her campus political party severed ties with her. ***And the Daily Californian, UC Berkeley’s storied student newspaper, ran an editorial critical of her statements and refused to publish her written defense.***
The uproar began Oct. 31, when the Queer Alliance Resource Center asked the student Senate to pass a bill condemning the Trump administration for considering a legal definition of gender that would require it to match a person’s sex at birth. The proposal would change the federal Title IX civil rights law and potentially remove its protections from 1.4 million transgender people, according to a New York Times story last month, based on a leaked memo. At UC Berkeley, the students’ resolution also urged the university to step up support of “transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students” and the campus groups that help them...'
Bottom line: Student newspaper criticizes an elected student/politician who abstains from a vote for religious reasons and won't publish her rebuttal. Of course, the newspaper is free to publish or not publish what it wants. But it all ends up as votes for Trump.

Jeff Hall said...

@California Policy Issues

I'm confused. Where in this post do you see that the Prof. Cohen has lumped Shapiro with the "far right"?

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