Right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’ went ahead with a highly anticipated visit to the University of California, Berkeley over the weekend despite a student group cancelling his talk, speaking briefly and without amplification in an anticlimactic appearance.
Part of a “Free Speech Week” organised by conservative student organisations, Mr Yiannaopoulos’ scheduled appearance had the campus bracing for another skirmish in a free speech war that in the past year has spurred mass protests and halted planned speeches. The university had previously cancelled appearances by Mr Yiannaopoulos and right-wing firebrand Ann Coulter.
But before Mr Yiannaopoulos spoke a student organisation announced it was cancelling a longer slate of “Free Speech Week” activities, capping weeks of uncertainty. The group Berkeley Patriot had hoped to host Ms Coulter and former top White House adviser Steve Bannon. Multiple conservative figures whom Berkeley Patriot listed as speakers said they had no such plans.
Despite those wider developments, Mr Yiannaopoulos proceeded. The conservative figure appeared for about 15 minutes, speaking without amplification to a crowd estimated at between 150 and 200 people and signing autographs for admirers amid heavy security before departing. An estimated 500 protesters gathered outside the event and then took to the streets for marches.
Masses of people remained outside of security barricades as Mr Yiannaopoulos spoke, and Mr Yiannaopoulos claimed on Facebook after his appearance that “hundreds” of people were denied entry. University spokesman Dan Mogulof said “there's no doubt the security line was moving slowly”, noting authorities were exercising caution after catching someone with a weapon that resembled plastic brass knuckles, but said Mr Yiannaopoulos chose to begin speaking with people still waiting.
The brief event cost the university around $800,000, said Mr Mogulof, who told reporters it was “the most expensive photo op in the university’s history”. The university worked with local law enforcement to bolster security, and Mr Mogulof pointed to the expense and concerted effort as evidence of the school’s “commitment to the First Amendment and Free Speech”.
Attorneys for Berkeley Patriot sent a letter to the university suggesting that the administration had undermined the planned event, saying organisers had endured “extraordinary pressure and resistance, if not outright hostility”. The university rejected the claim that it sought to block Free Speech Week from happening, pointing to the extensive planning it undertook to allow the event to proceed.
“It is extremely unfortunate that this announcement was made at the last minute, even as the University was in the process of spending significant sums of money and preparing for substantial disruption of campus life in order to provide the needed security for these events”, Mr Mogulof said in a statement after the cancellation was announced. “Claims that this is somehow the outcome desired by the campus are without basis in fact”.