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UC Berkeley and free speech in 2017: A year in review

121617 RAP berkeley review
FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2017 file photo, a fire set by demonstrators protesting a scheduled speaking appearance by Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos burns on Sproul Plaza on the University of California, Berkeley campus. UC Berkeley police took a hands-off approach to protesters on the campus last week when violent rioters overtook a largely peaceful protest against a controversial speaker. But that response is being questioned as demonstrators become increasingly hostile and politics are more polarized. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

The University of California, Berkeley’s motto may be “Let there be light.” However, its policies on free speech has cast a dark shadow on the university this year.

Last week, UC Berkeley was sued for violating the First and Fourteenth Amendment when they denied the Young Americans for Liberty chapter recognition on the grounds that the club was “too similar” to another group. There was no reasoning provided as to why the group is too similar. YAL was told on the last day to apply for registered student organization status that they would not be an official student organization. Subsequently, a lawsuit was filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of YAL.

This was not the first time, however, that UC Berkeley made headlines in 2017. In February and leading up to this month, the university has been subject to many controversies and violence.

On Feb. 1, Milo Yiannopoulos, a British conservative provocateur and former Breitbart editor, was scheduled to speak but was canceled due to riots and protests surrounding the venue. In fact, prior to the scheduled appearance, more than 100 faculty signed a petition urging the university to cancel the event, and more than 1,500 people protested the event. The protests quickly turned violent when individuals began setting fires, attacking the crowd, and throwing objects at police causing them to cancel the event entirely. The destruction of property, however, continued around campus and downtown Berkeley.

The following month, a pro-Trump march in nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park on March 4, cleverly titled, “March 4 Trump,” resulted in seven injuries and 10 arrests from supporters and counterprotesters clashing.

In April, university officials canceled a lecture by Ann Coulter, citing miscommunication and disagreement between the administration, the student groups, and Coulter. The university expressed concern over potential protests, and instructed student groups to have the lecture on a later date and at an earlier time to diminish the chance of violent confrontations. Ultimately, Coulter was unable to visit the campus because the situation had become far too hostile.

Related: I go to UC Berkeley and I'm watching free speech slip away

Fast forward to the start of the Fall semester, where UC Berkeley spent more than $600,000 on security alone for Ben Shapiro’s speech. The Berkeley City Council authorized police to carry pepper spray, a weapon that had previously been banned for 20 years in the city, in anticipation of violence erupting. The crowd grew to nearly 1,000, and nine were arrested for carrying banned weapons in this nonviolent protest.

In the same month, UC Berkeley shut down a “Free Speech Week” co-organized by Milo Yiannopoulos and the Berkeley Patriot, an online publication. The event was canceled because the organizers missed key deadlines, which have been speculated as purposeful red-tape created by the administration, alongside great concerns of potential violence. Also read: Kate Steinle vigil trashed at UC Berkeley

These incidents have marred UC Berkeley’s former reputation for being a bastion of free speech. The same campus that once stood witness to the birth of the Free Speech Movement 50 years ago is now under the microscope for restricting speech. The university claims “free speech is who we are,” but it appears that the “we” has become more selective.
It has indeed been a “Free Speech Year” as UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ called it before the start of the Fall Semester. However, the First Amendment was far from preserved on this “home of the Free Speech Movement.”
The darkness cast by restricting First Amendment rights at UC Berkeley must be shattered by open and civil discourse. The solution is not antagonism, but rather open conversation made possible by exercising the right to freedom of speech. The U.S. Constitution is the guiding light, and universities must never lose sight of that.
As the leader of the campus free speech movement in the 1960s, and the forefront of the anti-free speech movement in 2017, all eyes are on UC Berkeley for the upcoming year.

Andrea Fabián-Checkai a student at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, studying international studies with a focus in public diplomacy. She is a Media Ambassador and Chapter President for Young Americans for Liberty.