There was something odd in the statement that the University of California, Berkeley issued on Wednesday night in response to the leftist riot that stopped a speech by Breitbart tech editor Milo Yiannopooulos and trashed the town (emphasis added):
We condemn in the strongest possible terms the violence and unlawful behavior that was on display, and deeply regret that those tactics will now overshadow the efforts to engage in legitimate and lawful protest against the performer’s presence and perspectives.
UC Berkeley, as an institution, was not only opposed to Milo’s views (or what it imagined those views to be), but also to his very presence on campus. Nothing could be further from the spirit of the Free Speech Movement.
Unfortunately, the statement was not merely an error after the fact. It echoed an earlier statement by UC Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks the week before, in which he had tried to balance the “right to free expression” against the university’s “values of tolerance, inclusion and diversity” (original emphasis).
Note that free expression was not described as a “value” to which UC Berkeley subscribes, but a “right” that it must allow however grudgingly.
The statement went on to take a specific stance against Milo, misrepresenting his views:
In our view, Mr. Yiannopoulos is a troll and provocateur who uses odious behavior in part to “entertain,” but also to deflect any serious engagement with ideas. He has been widely and rightly condemned for engaging in hate speech directed at a wide range of groups and individuals, as well as for disparaging and ridiculing individual audience members, particularly members of the LGBTQ community. Mr. Yiannopoulos’s opinions and behavior can elicit strong reactions and his attacks can be extremely hurtful and disturbing. Although we urge anyone who is concerned about being targeted by Mr. Yiannopoulos to consider whether there is any value in attending this event, we stand ready to provide resources and support to our community members who may be adversely affected by his words and actions on the stage (we will provide more detail about these resources in a subsequent message).
The statement betrays Dirks’s complete ignorance — or the ignorance of whoever wrote it for him. Anyone who thinks Milo is not interested in “serious engagement with ideas,” for example, has never watched a Milo lecture online, and has never seen him invite challenging questions from the audience.
Worse, Dirks signaled to UC Berkeley as a whole that Milo was, indeed, dangerous to their well-being — so much so that they might need “resources and support.” For those in the mob that besieged the lecture hall Wednesday night, that was more than adequate pretext to claim they were merely acting in self-defense.
Later in the statement, Dirks went on to defend freedom of speech, and Berkeley as the home of the Free Speech Movement, which inspired campus activism across the world in the 1960s. But he went on to describe — proudly! — how the university had actually attempted to dissuade the Berkeley College Republicans (BCR) from inviting Milo to campus (original emphasis):
In addition, however, we have also clearly communicated to the BCR that we regard Yiannopoulos’s act as at odds with the values of this campus. We have emphasized to them that with their autonomy and independence comes a moral responsibility for the consequences of their words, actions, events and invitations – and those of their guest. We have made sure they are aware of how Yiannopoulos has conducted himself at prior events at other universities, and we have explained that his rhetoric is likely to be deeply upsetting and perceived as threatening by some of their fellow students and members of our campus community. Our student groups enjoy the right to invite whomever they wish to speak on campus, but we urge them to consider whether exercising that right in a manner that might unleash harmful attacks on fellow students and other members of the community is consistent with their own and with our community’s values.
The chilling effect of university administrators warning students that they ought not invite controversial speakers to campus and that they bear the moral consequences of doing so negates the right to free expression Dirks claimed to be upholding.
Later, he added that the university was “saddened that anyone would use degrading stunts or verbal assaults on marginalized members of our society to promote a political platform,” presupposing what Milo would say and signaling to the community that they ought to fear “assault” in advance.
Contrast that with how the university handled the visit of liberal comedian and HBO Real Time host Bill Maher, who was invited to speak by students at commencement, but whose visit was protested vigorously by Muslim students who were offended by his criticism of Islam. When the student group rescinded the invitation to Maher, UC Berkeley intervened to restore it — and issued a statement indicating that Chancellor Dirks “looks forward to welcoming Mr. Maher to the Berkeley campus.”
The university made clear that “that this decision does not constitute an endorsement of any of Mr. Maher’s prior statements,” but went on to declare complete neutrality with regard to Maher’s beliefs: “indeed, the administration’s position on Mr. Maher’s opinions and perspectives is irrelevant.” And in defending Maher, UC Berkeley did not qualify the right to free speech by balancing it against any other “values.”
In Milo’s case, however, UC Berkeley not only made clear its opposition to what Milo had said in the past, but to what he had not yet said in the future.
The difference is stark. For all of his offensive views on Islam and other matters, Maher remains a man of the left, a generous contributor to Democratic Party campaigns and causes. Milo, by contrast, is a libertarian conservative who backed President Donald Trump and is therefore denied the same institutional deference to his views and protection of his rights.
The administrators who were bold in defending Maher — even to the point of overruling students’ own decisions — lost their nerve when it came to defending Milo. It would be more accurate, in fact, to say that the UC Berkeley administration joined the protesters in advance, objecting not only to Milo’s views but his physical presence.
The administrators clearly would have preferred that the protest be non-violent, and condemned the violence on Wednesday evening, but they created the false pretext of assault and injury that justified a violent response.
Undoubtedly, the university will blame outsiders for the vandalism in the streets and for the flames on campus, for the bricks and bottles and pepper spray and fireworks. But on this occasion, that is an inexcusable copout. UC Berkeley made clear that it was on the side of those who wanted Milo shut down. It made clear that conservatives, of whatever ideological flavor, do not actually have the unfettered right of free expression on campus.
Chancellor Dirks and the UC Berkeley administration deserve to be held accountable for the violence that violated Milo’s rights — and the rights of those who wanted to hear him — as well as for the betrayal of the university’s free speech legacy.
Breitbart News sought comment from UC Berkeley Wednesday evening but received no response overnight.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. His new book, How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.