Safety concerns prompt UC Berkeley to cancel talk by Ann Coulter

The violence that broke out in Berkeley on April 15 was one of the reasons UC Berkeley has canceled a planned talk by Ann Coulter, a controversial right-wing commentator. Photo: David Yee ©2017

By Frances Dinkelspiel and Natalie Orenstein

UC Berkeley has canceled Ann Coulter’s planned talk on April 27 because it cannot guarantee the safety of the right-wing commentator or the safety of attendees or those protesting her appearance.

Scott Biddy, the vice chancellor, and Stephen Sutton, the vice chancellor for student affairs, sent an email Tuesday night to the Berkeley College Republicans telling them of the decision. However, they said UC is committed to working with the College Republicans to bring Coulter to speak in September when arrangements can be made for her to speak in an appropriate venue.

Coulter, however, has vowed to come to Berkeley on her own terms, telling the Hollywood Reporter, “Speech will go on.”


Concerns about what would happen at Coulter’s talk escalated after right and left wing activists converged on Berkeley on April 15 and battled in the streets. Pro-Trump supporters, white supremacists, and pro-gun activists clashed with Antifa demonstrators who came to shut them down. The Antifa initiated the violence, spraying pepper spray and throwing projectiles, according to a memo by Police Chief Andrew Greenwood. However, those on the opposite side fought back with fists and sticks and other methods.

“Did UCPD’s concerns grow in the wake of what happened Saturday?” said Dan Mogulof, a university spokesman. “Absolutely.”

That concern was augmented when UC police learned that “some of the groups that appear to be responsible for the violence over the past weekend, as well as in and around the campus on the night of February 1st, planned to target the appearance of Ann Coulter on campus. Last week posters threatening disruption of the event appeared on the walls of campus buildings.”

Campus police also found rumblings on Reddit and a bodybuilding website that suggested there would be violence at Coulter’s event,

“There’s going to be a huge farking brawl on the 27th in Berkeley!!!” wrote a 28-year old male who uses the name Khalil Yousuf on Bodybuilding.com. “These Antifa clowns are going to be their to take cheap shot at us. Help us cold cock some antifa ***s.

He went on to write, “We’re organizing a huge crew on reddit. People are flying from all over country for this one.”

Pranav Jandhyala, founder of BridgeUSA, the non-partisan campus group that invited Coulter to UC Berkeley on the College Republicans’ recommendation, said he was “disheartened” when he heard about the cancellation.

“I think security and safety concerns are definitely warranted, but it’s the university’s responsibility to deal with those concerns. Their biggest responsibility is to protect all types of speech and opinions on campus,” said Jandhyala, 19, who identifies as a moderate.

He said the campus groups and Coulter had “agreed to every single security demand that the administration levied on us,” such as holding the event during the day and only allowing students in.

In response to the university’s cancellation letter, which said the UC was “unable to find a safe and suitable venue,” Coulter tweeted: “Instructing Berkeley student group to spare no expense in renting my speaking venue – part of my legal damages.”

The Coulter event was to be part of a speaker series including a liberal, a conservative and a libertarian discussing “illegal immigration,” Jandhyala said. The liberal speaker, Maria Echavese, a UC Berkeley law professor and former deputy chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, spoke already.

BridgeUSA invited Coulter to speak because the College Republicans said she represented their views on immigration, Jandhyala said. He said his organization contributed $3,000 and secured a $17,000 grant from the conservative Young America’s Foundation to bring her to Berkeley.

This will be the third time a talk by a controversial speaker brought to campus by the College Republicans has been canceled. On Feb. 1, campus officials canceled Milo Yiannapolous’ talk after a contingent of about 100 Antifa protesters, clad in black, their faces covered, descended upon the student center. They hit people with sticks, pulled down barricades, and set a portable generator on fire. Then they looted and trashed downtown.

The College Republicans cancelled a scheduled talk by David Horowitz when they found out the only place he could talk was off campus, at the Clark Kerr campus, and in the afternoon.

Mogulof said university officials learned about Coulter’s talk through an article in the newspaper. Student affairs and the police have been meeting with the College Republicans ever since to find a venue that is large and safe enough for Coulter to speak in. Mogulof said there are only six or so venues on campus that meet that criteria and none of them were available April 27.

He said he is confident Cal can find a suitable venue that is available in September.

“We are going to work with them to ensure that a future event with this speaker is held successfully,” said Mogulof.

The College Republicans could not be reached for comment. Mogulof said they believe the university is exercising “unconstitutional prior restraint,” by canceling Coulter’s talk.

Mogulof said “the constitution permits the university to take necessary steps to protect public safety. That’s exactly what we are doing.”

Here the email university officials sent to the College Republicans:

Dear Naweed and Ross,

We understand that earlier this evening our Dean of Students, Joseph Greenwell, informed your leadership that despite extensive efforts on the part of UCPD and the staff within Student Affairs, we have been unable to find a safe and suitable venue for your planned April 27th event featuring Ann Coulter. We therefore must now work together to reschedule her appearance for a later date. We regret this outcomeespecially given our unqualified support for our students’ right to bring speakers of their choosing to the University, and our deep commitment to the values and principles embedded in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

While Registered Student Organizations like yours are independent from the University, and have the right to invite whoever they’d like to speak here, the campus retains responsibility for ensuring safety and security during such events. This includes the safety and security of invited speakers, of those who attend such events, of our community neighbors, and of those who choose to exercise their own First Amendment rights by lawfully protesting the presence of speakers with whom they disagree. In this context, we greatly appreciate recent public comments by your spokespeople, who have offered full support for increased security measures in and around high-profile events.

As a general matter, the timing of an event, as well the location and nature of the venue, play an important role when it comes to the safety and security of the speaker, attendees, our community neighbors, as well as individuals engaged in lawful protest. In the wake of events surrounding the planned appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos in February, as well as several riots which have occurred in recent weeks in the City of Berkeley, we have increased our scrutiny regarding the time and location of high-profile speakers so that these events can go forward unimpeded. We base our decisions regarding an event’s timing and location on the objective analysis of the law enforcement professionals of UCPD as to how best to ensure safety for all while maximizing the chances that the event can take place as planned.

For that reason, when we learned through the newspapers that you had invited Ms. Coulter to speak here on April 27th, we immediately asked UCPD to conduct a comprehensive review of potential sites and security arrangements. Unfortunately, UCPD determined that, given currently active security threats, it is not possible to assure that the event could be held successfullyor that the safety of Ms. Coulter, the event sponsors, audience, and bystanders could be adequately protectedat any of the campus venues available on April 27th. One of the primary lessons learned here is that before a student organization commits to hosting an event on a specific date, we need to first work together to determine if a suitable venue is available at that time.

We realize that this is disappointing news, but the good news is that UCPD and Student Affairs remain firmly committed to working with you to find an alternative time and date for Ms. Coulter to come speak here at Berkeley. We expect most Mondays and Tuesdays in September during the day should work, though we will of course need to work through the details. To make this process a success, we will need at least four weeks notice to collaborate on identifying an appropriate venue, time of day, and security arrangements. We are confident that with sufficient lead-time and continued collaboration we can together do what is necessary to offer the broadest possible range of speakers and events on the Berkeley campus.

Sincerely,

Vice Chancellor Scott Biddy

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Stephen Sutton

Editor’s note: This story was updated with new information after publication.