On July 28th, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin was quoted urging the chancellor of University of California Berkeley to cancel a planned “Free Speech Week” by conservatives because of the potential for violence. The mayor said to the Washington Examiner: ““I’m very concerned about Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter and some of these other right-wing speakers coming to the Berkeley campus because it’s just a target for the black bloc to come out and commit mayhem on the Berkeley campus and have that potentially spill out on the street.” The school made clear they did not have the legal authority to cancel any speaker invited by the students because of the speaker’s point of view and is going forward as planned. (After the mayor made those comments, Steve Bannon was added to the list of speakers,)
Violence inflicted upon our fellow citizenry or the destruction of property is abhorrent and truly should have no place in Berkeley so I share the mayor’s concerns, but, with all the respect to the mayor, I disagree with his action and his logic and applaud the school for their decision.
To explain why, let me start with a question: Why does the mayor say (as he did to the SF Chronicle), that Mr. Yiannopoulos and others “bear responsibility for inciting a violent environment?” While I’m not a huge fan of Mr. Yiannopoulos or Ms. Coulter, and I can certainly find many examples of actions or statements by both that I (sometimes strongly) disagree with, the mayor clearly indicates his primary concern is not with what is actually said at these events. The concern, rather, is how particular individuals, namely so-called “Anti-Fascists” will respond to the presence of these individuals. Their response will be with violence.
But draw what the mayor is recommending to its logical conclusion: Imagine Ms. Coulter comes to Cal. I, as a citizen of Berkeley and of this country, decide, dammit, I’ve got a right to listen to whatever disagreeable idea that may come out of Ms. Coulter’s mouth and, furthermore, a right to challenge some of her assertions. On my way to the auditorium, I’m attacked by a bat-toting so called “Anti-Fascist” and end up in the hospital with a concussion. Does the mayor really mean to say that the onus for this act is on Anne Coulter and not the wielder of the bat?
But let’s say it’s not Ms. Coulter or Mr. Yiannopoulos because the mayor was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, “”What we should be doing is bringing in conservative thought leaders, not conservative provocateurs.” Why exactly does the mayor think a “conservative thought leader” speaking will result in a different outcome than from Ms. Coulter or Mr. Yiannopoulos? And even if it does, what of it?
Because you see the mayor’s position is, de facto, arguing for self-censorship and allowing the purported “Anti-Fascists” to be the arbiters of acceptable speech in Berkeley, once a beacon of this bedrock principle. The problem, by this logic, is not the purported “Anti-Fascists” who are deploying a type of violent “heckler’s veto” to deny the students and citizens of Berkeley an opportunity to use OUR free speech to engage, to debate, to peacefully protest or to not listen, but, indeed, the speakers for saying the provocative and, certainly at times, offensive statements. And by what right (other than that which they are granting themselves), do the purported “Anti-Fascists” get to decide for the students and citizens of Berkeley what is and what is not acceptable speech? They clearly and self-evidently do not legally have one, and yet, their threats of violence seem to have moved the mayor to in part bestow it upon them. It would seem to me a very slippery slope from this posture to asking our libraries to, for example, remove copies of “Mein Kampf” (and yes, they are there) or perhaps the books of Ms. Coulter or Mr. Yiannopoulos because of the response they may provoke.
I realize the mayor has recently called for classifying the purported “Anti-Fascists” as a gang in the hopes of reining in their flagrant abuse of our laws if not common decency. The mayor can call them whatever he’d like. I would just implore him that any further response from his office also includes standing up for the rights of individuals to peacefully and lawfully express their opinion, however distasteful and, just as importantly, the right for me as a citizen to listen and debate them without an iota of an inch of capitulation to those who believe otherwise.