The University of California Berkeley has an unearned reputation as the “home of the Free Speech movement,” a reference to the 1964 campaign by that name, which was really about the right to conduct political recruitment for leftist causes on the campus proper. Free speech was obviously already a right guaranteed by the First Amendment and California law. This history came immediately to mind when I received an invitation from College Republicans to speak on campus April 12. The subject of my lecture would be my book, Big Agenda President Trump’s Plan to Save America,” not likely to be a popular subject among Berkeley’s student activists.
Two months previously, a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos had to be canceled when anarchists staged a riot, injuring several bystanders and causing $100,000 in property damage. Campus police were present but did nothing to prevent or stop it. Although my visibility on campuses is considerably lower than Milo’s, I did wonder how the UC police department was going to deal with the safety issues surrounding my event.
Sixteen years before, I had spoken at Berkeley during a controversy I triggered over reparations for slavery. I had taken the position that reparations to be paid 137 years after the fact to people who had never been slaves by people who had never been slave owners was divisive, unjust and even racist. The left reacted, predictably, by calling me racist. Since I knew there was likely to be trouble, I asked the chancellor to introduce me, thinking that his authority would help to give the event an academic demeanor. Instead he provided 30 armed guards, some wearing flak jackets, to watch over the proceedings. A team of them accompanied me to the bathroom prior to my speech and kicked open the stall doors, lest some assailant be hiding behind them. It was disgraceful, I thought, that a university couldn’t – or more accurately wouldn’t – discipline its radicals so that civility could prevail and a reasonable intellectual discourse take place on its campus. Nonetheless, the event went off peacefully, which told me that UC Berkeley had the firepower necessary to intimidate and dissuade the violent. That is, if it chose to do so.
Evidently, sixteen years later, it no longer does. Days before my scheduled appearance, my student hosts informed me that the university was insisting the event be held at 1PM, a time when afternoon classes were just starting and few students were likely to attend, instead of 4PM as they had originally asked. Moreover, the university was not going to make a space available on the actual campus, but at a site ten or twenty blocks away.
In other words, they were going to solve the violence against free speech problem by removing the free speech as far as possible from the community eye. Placing the burden on the victims of campus bigotry and violence outraged me. I put in a call to the office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, intending to protest the arrangement and see if I could get a more reasonable solution. This led to a phone call with Vice Chancellor Stephen Sutton and Captain Alex Yao of the UC police department. I pointed out that the students’ original request was for speaking time during daylight hours, which wouldn’t incur the same problems as Milo’s evening event did. I knew that they had an army of campus police at their disposal, and said that if they had used it during the Milo ruckus, they could have arrested the perpetrators and avoided the damages, and also the problem that my event now posed. Finally, I pointed out that they already had a serious public relations problem. People outside the university bubble appreciated the irony of the “home of the free speech movement” being so obviously hostile to free speech. Moreover, this had financial repercussions they probably did not want to ignore. I knew of at least one donor who had been planning to make a major gift to Berkeley but decided to withdraw the offer after witnessing the university’s capitulation to the Milo rioters.
My arguments were in vain. The Vice Chancellor assured me that the decision to place restrictions on the event had been made at the highest levels of the university. Then police captain Yao chimed in, and with great urgency said, “You can advertise the event but you must not give advance notice of its location.” I almost fell out of my chair when he said this. “In other words,” I replied, you are willing to allow a conservative speaker to come to campus – well, to an off-campus location – provided no one knows where it is. Free speech is okay with the university if we just hide it?”
Not everybody has drunk the progressive Kool-Aid offered by UC administrators. Consequently, on Wednesday April 12, when I appear at the off-campus location, the actual campus will find itself plastered with posters bearing the hashtag: “Berkeley hates free speech.”