The far right’s “Free Speech Week” at UC Berkeley, explained

Conservatives are rallying at UC Berkeley for four days starting on Sunday. But the events won’t focus on defending President Donald Trump, propping up “family values,” or spreading the gospel of free market capitalism. Instead, organizers want to stand up for free speech — or, if their critics are right, outright bigotry and hate.

“Free Speech Week,” as organizers are calling it, will reportedly include big names such as Breitbart executive chair (and former Trump adviser) Steve Bannon, disgraced ex-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, and author Ann Coulter. These are by and large far-right activists with similar political ideologies. But what’s bringing them together this time around is a belief that free speech is now being stifled in political discourse across the country — and particularly at Berkeley, which activists have targeted because it was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s.

These fears are built on a belief that American universities have deteriorated to shield students from opposing political views — through “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and a general tilt toward “political correctness.”

They have been further buoyed by the recent rise of the “antifa” movement, which purports to stand up against fascism but has violently protested conservative events to the point that some of these speeches and rallies had to be canceled for security concerns. Some of the speakers, including Yiannopoulos and Coulter, had to cancel their own events at Berkeley earlier this year due to violent protests — and antifa’s actions have helped support the idea that people are trying to silence them.

But one of the reasons people are so opposed to these “free speech” events — to the point of violence in some cases — is because these conservative activists often use the mantle of “free speech” to say some really bigoted, offensive things. Yiannopoulos, for example, has made a big name for himself by saying prejudiced things about women, Muslim people, and LGBTQ Americans (especially transgender folks), and then defending such bigoted comments by arguing that he should be able to say whatever he wants because it’s his right.

So the event is very controversial. It’s also already faced a rocky start after organizers missed key deadlines to have their events indoors as originally planned, and after some people questioned the original speakers list — with some supposed participants noting that they were never invited or wouldn’t attend.

Yet despite the hurdles, the event is now on — and it’s sure to draw a lot of attention if, like similar events at Berkeley in the past, things get violent.

Free Speech Week is already off to a rocky start

There have been questions over the past few weeks about whether Free Speech Week was even going to happen in the first place.

As local outlets reported, the Berkeley Patriot student group missed deadlines that would have given university police the time they need to set up security for the week. So the events, which were originally set to happen indoors by organizers, will have to mostly move outside.

There are also open questions about the supposed speaker list. Only Yiannopoulos, conservative commentator David Horowitz, and far-right activist Lucian Wintrich have actually confirmed that they will attend, according to news reports. Several big names, such as Coulter and Bannon, have not publicly confirmed their attendance.

In fact, several people originally included in the official speaker list said they don’t plan to go.

Charles Murray, a conservative commentator who has promoted pseudoscientific ideas about race and IQ, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The inclusion of my name in the list of speakers was done without my knowledge or permission.” Murray added that he would never attend an event with Yiannopoulos “[b]ecause he is a despicable asshole.”

Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and author Michael Malice also said they would not attend.

Event organizers chalked up Murray’s inclusion on the list to a “clerical error.” Since then, the event website’s list of speakers has been updated. (Berkeley Patriot didn’t return my request for comment.)

Why conservatives say “free speech” must be defended

Behind this entire event is a growing consensus in conservative circles that free speech is under attack in America.

Much of this comes from an aversion to what critics, from Yiannopoulous to President Donald Trump, call “political correctness.” They argue that “PC” culture is being used to stifle dissent on college campuses and across America.

Michelle Goldberg, a columnist at Slate who interviewed dozens of people at Trump rallies, wrote that she consistently heard this from Trump supporters: “Again and again, people told me how much they resented not being able to speak their minds, though none of them wanted to articulate what exactly they were holding in. They said they hated being shamed on social media, though they usually didn’t want to say what they had been shamed for.”

The undertone here is that these Trump supporters want to be able to say racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted things without consequence.

But another possibility is that these supporters want to be able to speak about issues — sometimes in a clumsy, accidentally offensive way, because they just don’t know the appropriate language for these topics — without being shamed. Writing them off as simply racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted only makes them feel like their actual concerns about the economy, state of the country, size of government, and so on are going ignored. Political correctness — and identity politics more broadly — have, in their view, oppressed them.

Yiannopoulos and other participants of Free Speech Week are essentially taking advantage of these concerns — to promote themselves, troll (seriously), or advance their political agendas.

They can do this because they have experienced their speech getting shut down. Yiannopoulos, for one, was forced to cancel an event at UC Berkeley when antifa protesters rioted, with some even throwing explosive Molotov cocktails and other objects at police. Coulter also had to cancel an event at Berkeley due to security and safety concerns. (Although, notably, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro recently held an event at Berkeley without any major interruptions, and the protests were by and large peaceful.)

Meanwhile, boycotts and protests are already planned for Free Speech Week.

To people like Yiannopoulos, this feels like an attack on their ability to say what they want. “All I care about is free speech and free expression,” Yiannopoulos told Bill Maher earlier this year. “I want people to be able to be, do, and say anything.”

This isn’t something that’s exclusive to conservatives. Maher, who identifies as liberal, appeared to invite Yiannopoulos to his show at least in part because he agrees that liberals are too sensitive to speech that they disagree with. “You make liberals crazy for that part of liberalism that has gone off the deep end,” Maher told Yiannopoulos.

Free Speech Week has even attempted to draw parallels to Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in the 1960s, with Yiannopoulos slated to give the “Mario Savio Award” — named after a key figure in the ’60s movement — at the end of the week.

This isn’t completely baseless. Robert Cohen, a historian whose many books include The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s, explained in the Nation: “Savio would almost certainly have disagreed with the faculty and students who urged the administration to ban Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking on campus, and been heartened by the chancellor’s refusal to ban a speaker.”

But as Cohen suggests, this is a very different Berkeley. The administration rejected calls to ban Yiannopoulos. And the fact that Free Speech Week is happening at all — and that people are expected to be able to freely protest it — exemplifies the kind of free speech that Savio supported.

Cohen also pointed out that Savio took a more nuanced stance on free speech than Yiannopoulous and his supporters give him credit for: While people should be allowed to say what they want, Savio also acknowledged that free speech rights come with certain responsibilities — even if it’s on the public, not the government or a university, to enforce those responsibilities.

“So it is not surprising that later in Savio’s life when he was on the faculty of Sonoma State University he sought to convince the editors of the student newspaper there that their use of the [n-word] in the paper was hurtful and irresponsible, which is why it had sparked angry protests by African-American students,” Cohen wrote. “Savio did not deny students had the right to print what they chose, but asked that they reach out to their black classmates and reflect on whether in the future they could be more thoughtful about the impact their words had on the campus community.”

That Yiannopoulos doesn’t seem to acknowledge the responsibility he has as a major public speaker is one reason so many people dislike him so much.

“Free speech” is often used to justify outright bigotry

Some liberals have argued that this conservative defense of free speech is really a ruse to say all sorts of racist, sexist, and other bigoted things.

Consider some of what Yiannopoulos has said over the past few years:

  • He claimed he “went gay” so he “didn’t have to deal with nutty broads.”
  • He was banned on Twitter after he launched a racist, sexist harassment campaign against black actress Leslie Jones, whom he described as “barely literate” and “a man.”
  • He often mentions that he only dates nonwhite men — in a way that deliberately exoticizes and stereotypes black men. In one column, he asked, “am I racist for not dating white dudes?” He later added, “These days, I wouldn’t actually write ‘no whites’ on my profile. Some people would find that offensive. But I would come up with a formulation to achieve the same effect, like, say, ‘9 inches and over, and don’t contact me if you can name more than four hockey players.’”
  • He named and showed the picture of a transgender student previously at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee during a speech at the school — effectively doxxing a nonpublic figure and opening her up to harassment because he didn’t like her feminist activism.
  • He repeatedly argued on Real Time With Bill Maher that trans people are “disordered,” and even suggested that gay people might be as well. (Major medical groups, like the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, say being transgender or gay is not a mental disorder.)
  • He hired a black porn star, Jovan Jordan, as a bodyguard when attending a meetup for video gamers. “My most ardent haters are feminists, and their fear of penises is well-known,” he argued. “It was vital, therefore, that I sought the services of a man believed to have the biggest dick in the porn industry.”
  • He said that men shouldn’t be kicked out of universities for groping women.
  • He declared his birthday “World Patriarchy Day.”
  • He created the “Yiannopoulos Privilege Grant,” a college scholarship available only to white men to put them “on equal footing with their female, queer and ethnic minority classmates.”

These comments apparently weren’t enough to stop Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) organizers from inviting Yiannopoulos to this year’s largest mainstream gathering in conservative politics. In fact, it wasn’t until comments in which Yiannopoulos appeared to defend child molestation and pedophilia — which were surfaced by a 16-year-old Canadian girl — that CPAC rescinded the invitation.

Yiannopoulos’s case shows what a lot of liberals have long suspected: that this defense of “free speech” is really an excuse to get away with bigotry. ThinkProgress editor Judd Legum pointed out, for example, that despite CPAC’s claim that it invited Yiannopoulos to defend his free speech rights, they disinvited him when his speech went too far for them. The racism, sexism, and other offensive remarks were apparently fine, but it was the defense of child molestation that apparently crossed a line.

It’s not just Yiannopoulos; several other attendees have a history of making hateful, bigoted remarks. Bannon has repeatedly backed anti-immigrant causes, and his website, Breitbart, is dedicated to promoting a nationalist agenda that often teeters into racist tropes. Coulter has similarly taken hardline anti-immigrant stances over the years, comparing immigration to “genocide.” Pamela Geller, another supposed attendee, runs an anti-Islam blog, supported Trump’s Muslim ban, and called President Barack Obama “the jihadi in chief.” The list goes on and on.

The events scheduled for Free Speech Week seem to continue this trend. The first day, for example, is “Feminism Awareness Day,” and the third day is “Islamic Peace and Tolerance Day” — moments that will almost certainly be used to attack Muslims and feminists, as many of these speakers have done before. And they’ll do it all in the name of “free speech.”