Balancing free speech and safety at UC Berkeley — from Yiannopoulos to Coulter

Ralph E. Stone
Saturday November 23, 2019 - 10:51:00 AM

On November 20, 2019, Ann Coulter — American conservative media pundit, syndicated columnist, lawyer, and supporter of Trump’s wall — spoke at U.C. Berkeley sparking angry protests.

The Berkeley College Republicans invited Coulter for a talk entitled, “Adios, America!” Advertising said the writer would discuss the “current United States immigration system and the dangers of mass immigration.” Many protestors carrying signs condemning her as a fascist. While some masked protesters were arrested at the event, there was no violence or destruction of property. 

Coulter’s 2017 speech was canceled because of threatened riot-like demonstrations. 

Perhaps, UC Berkeley has found a balance between their commitment to free speech with campus safety unlike the two Yiannopoulos incidents in 2017. 

Back in February 2017, amid an organized violent attack and destruction of property at UC Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, the UC 

Police Department was forced to cancel a scheduled speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, then a Breitbart News editor, who has made a career of insulting people online with racist and sexist diatribes. 

Over 200 police officers were deployed including some from the Oakland Police Department. Twenty people were arrested. Eleven people were injured with six taken to the hospital. The police confiscated stun guns, knives, flag poles, baseball bats, and metal pipes. Fireworks and other objects were thrown into the crowd and pepper spray was used.  

In September 2017, Yiannopoulos returned to UC Berkeley for a speech during his much hyped “Free Speech Week.” He spent about 15-minutes at Sproul Plaza on campus without a microphone. He was then hustled away amidst mostly peaceful shouting matches between conservative supporters of Yiannopoulos and anti-fascist protesters.  

UC Berkeley spent about $800,000 on a massive security detail that drew police from eight law enforcement agencies and campuses across the state. “It feels like probably the most expensive photo op in the university’s history,” said UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof. 


I suspect the Berkeley College Republicans sponsored Yiannopoulos and Coulter hoping that the event would cause controversy at Berkeley, the symbol of the Free Speech Movement of 1964. If either had been forced to cancel, they could scream, “we were denied our free speech rights” but also claim, "it's good for business.” 


While I am not followers of Yiannopoulos and Coulter, I do recognize their First Amendment right of free speech for themselves and their opponents have the right to peacefully protest. The UC Berkeley community seems to have learned from past experiences that peaceful demonstrations can co-exist with controversial speech.