The University of California at Berkeley is bracing for massive protests in a public plaza on campus after learning that conservative commentator Ann Coulter plans to give a speech there Thursday afternoon.
Sproul Plaza, site of the iconic Free Speech Movement protests in the 1960s, is both symbolic and logistically challenging for the university. On an open campus, anyone can flock to the plaza.
“If somebody brings weapons, there’s no way to block off the site – or to screen them,” Nicholas Dirks, UC-Berkeley’s chancellor, said Tuesday. For an event inside, the university would have metal detectors and other ways to search for weapons. Officials know that some of the demonstrators, such as those known as Black Bloc, know how to penetrate the crowd and use it as a shield, Dirks said. “In an open space you have almost no control over that,” he said. “The challenges are immense.”
In this Feb. 12, 2011 file photo, Ann Coulter waves to the audience after speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. University of California, Berkeley students who invited Coulter to speak on campus filed a lawsuit Monday April 24, 2017, against the university, saying it is discriminating against conservative speakers and violating students rights to free speech.
AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File
The state flagship university has become ground zero for an intense confrontation between the far left and the far right. Some protesters are trying to stop controversial speakers from appearing on campus, while others objecting that such actions violate their right to free speech. In February and twice more since then, masked extremists turned those protests over the boundary between free speech and hate speech into violent confrontations, with fires set, people hurt and hundreds of thousands of dollars of property damage.
“The character of that attack on campus was unprecedented,” Dirks said.
So was the response on Feb. 1: After the university went on lockdown and police urged university officials to cancel controversial writer Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech — which they did — President Donald Trump raised the threat of pulling federal funding from the public school.
Milo Yiannopoulos holds a press conference in New York on February 21, 2017
But the cancellation of the Yiannopoulos event further galvanized activists on the far right, who viewed it as a call to arms and proof that conservatives around the country are being oppressed. And in recent weeks, rallies in the city of Berkeley have devolved into bloody street brawls. Left-wing activists have clashed with Trump supporters, and anarchists in black masks have squared off against self-proclaimed militia groups.
Coulter did not immediately respond to a request for comment on her planned appearance. On Monday she had retweeted a weather forecast with this comment: “Nice day for an outdoor speech at Berkeley.”
Berkeley College Republicans had invited Coulter to speak on campus Thursday, but university officials canceled the event because of safety concerns. The university then invited her to speak next week instead at an indoor location.
Coulter rejected that offer, and said she still planned to come to Berkeley on Thursday despite the university’s warnings against it. On Monday, student groups filed a lawsuit against university officials, complaining that the university’s decision was stifling free speech at the school, particularly for politically conservative students whose views are controversial on campus.
In this Feb. 1, 2017 file photo, a fire set by demonstrators protesting a scheduled speaking appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos burns on Sproul Plaza on the University of California, Berkeley campus.
Pranav Jandhyala, who leads one of the two student groups that invited Coulter, said Tuesday that Coulter told him and other students that she plans to speak Thursday afternoon at Sproul Plaza.
Jandhyala said his student group has been trying frantically to find an off-campus venue for Thursday, and he said he shares the concerns of university officials that Coulter’s appearance at Sproul – and the protests and counter-protests it will likely spark – could grow violent. But he said that Coulter made clear in communication with him and other student organizers on Tuesday morning, that she intends to go through with her plan to appear at Sproul.
“We’re worried about it turning into a huge battle between her security and conservative militia and anti-fascists and others,” Jandhyala said. “To have that right in middle of Sproul doesn’t bode well for the imge of our school or the city. We’re worried about violence and student safety and our own safety as well. It’s a huge safety concern.”
He said the exact timing of when it would happen is still unknown, but he expected about 4 p.m. “She said she doesn’t even know her full schedule on Thursday right now. She’s going to know Thursday morning and relay to us when she plans to come to Sproul,” Jandhyala said.
When Jandhyala’s group, a politically moderate group called Bridges USA, teamed up with Berkeley’s College Republicans to invite Coulter to campus, the goal was to facilitate a dialogue about immigration. “It’s an issue that hits home for many of our students. Berkeley is a sanctuary city. We have many undocumented immigrant students. That’s why it seemed like a good issue to put on the table. UC-Berkeley can represent the liberal point of view very well. So what we were trying to do with Coulter was to bring in opposing view to have a dialogue about it.”
While that was the original purpose, Jandhyala acknowledged that Coulter may have her own agenda now in coming to the campus. “Her goal is testing the limits of speech and doing all she can to uphold this value and prove what’s possible and not back down from free speech.”
Her appearance outdoors at the plaza will likely make it hard for any dialogue or interaction with students, he said, and his group is trying to hold a separate event with her that would allow for conversation.
Dan Mogulof, a spokesman for the university, said the school does not talk about security arrangements in detail. But he said officials would take extraordinary steps to protect the campus, in coordination with local and regional law enforcement.
“At UC-Berkeley, we don’t have gates,” Mogulof said. “There are probably literally hundreds of ways come onto campus from the city. We don’t have a drawbridge or moat. We are completely porous campus.”