Last night, a violent protest at the University of California, Berkeley forced the cancellation of a speech by Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. The fires, vandalism, and injuries resulting from the unrest at Berkeley have drawn national media attention and a tweet from President Donald Trump.
FIRE condemns both violence and attempts to silence protected expression in the strongest terms. We also urge that decisions affecting long-term policy be made only after all the facts are gathered and with appropriate opportunity for reasoned discussion.
Last week, Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks wrote a letter to the university community rightfully refusing demands that the university cancel the event ahead of time. Dirks pointed out his disagreement with Yiannopoulos’ views, but insisted that “[c]onsistent with the dictates of the First Amendment as uniformly and decisively interpreted by the courts, the university cannot censor or prohibit events, or charge differential fees.” He also warned those threatening disruptive protests in an effort to shut down the speech that the university “will not stand idly by while laws or university policies are violated, no matter who the perpetrators are.” FIRE praised Dirks’ statement at the time. Unfortunately, it does not appear that the campus was prepared for the magnitude of the disruption, and the speech was canceled as a result.
This morning, President Trump weighed in with a tweet reading, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” It is true that, under current law, public universities that enforce blatantly unconstitutional speech codes and private universities that violate their own promises of free speech do not face the same potential loss of federal funding for censoring campus speech that they do for violating other federal civil rights laws and regulations. However, FIRE has so far seen no evidence that Berkeley as an institution made any effort to silence Yiannopoulos.
Those who engage in violent and/or destructive protests are ultimately responsible for their unlawful behavior and may be subject to arrest and prosecution by law enforcement. To punish an educational institution for the criminal behavior of those not under its control and in contravention of its policies, whether through the loss of federal funds or through any other means, would be deeply inappropriate and most likely unlawful.
The events at Berkeley should alarm citizens from across the political spectrum who hold dear the liberal values enshrined in the First Amendment. FIRE will continue to insist that the proper answer to speech you hate is more speech, and we stand with the vast majority of Americans who live according to this principle every day.