Thursday, February 02, 2017

Thoughts on UC Berkeley Riot

Unlike Ken White, I did not think that UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks' statement about Milo Yiannopoulos was "exceptionally good". While violent protestors are, of course, entirely responsible for their own actions, I think the protests could have been tempered by a stronger statement in defense of, not just Yiannopoulos's right to speak, but the right of Berkeley students to hear him speak and the right of the Berkeley College Republicans to put on a speaking event on their campus. Though Dirks' statement did of course mount such a defense, it was weakened by his insistence on denouncing the speaker in very strong terms.

Instead, I think Dirks should have told prospective protesters simply that Yiannopoulos is the guest of a legitimate campus organization, that he is there only to speak, and therefore has the familiar rights that go along with that activity (rights that should be especially familiar at the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement). He should have said that formal requests to have the event cancelled have been received and noted. And that they have been rejected. [Update: he did say this.] Yiannopoulos would therefore arrive on campus as a guest of the University.

Dirks, on the contrary, appealed to a legal separation between the university and the college republicans to distance UC Berkeley from the invitation. This may have been technically correct, but I think it is unwise and, perhaps, a little disingenuous. The Chancellor, presumably, did have the legal authority to cancel the event at any time prior to the moment when it was, in fact, cancelled. He chose, rightly, not to do so. At that point, he should have extended practical protections to the event organizers and the guest speakers. I.e., he should have offered his hospitality.

Denouncing a guest in advance of his visit cannot be considered hospitable by any measure. I would argue that the Chancellor in effect declared the event "fair game" for protest, and even disruption. What he should have said is that he considers Yiannopoulos his personal guest, and no disruption will be tolerated. Berkeley had decided to "hear his views" and his views, accordingly, would be heard by Berkeley. Students who participate in making it impossible for the event to proceed should be expelled on those grounds.

This is a strong case of what I have called the need for decorum on college campuses. In fact, I have suggested that once a speaker has been approved by college administrators and the venue has been allocated, it is entirely appropriate to ban protest against the speaker.

The important thing is not to invite speakers that then feel genuinely unwelcome. The speaker is a guest and should be treated accordingly by the entire student and faculty population. The relevant protest could easily be held well before or after the event and should be directed at the administrators who allow it to go forward and the student leaders who selected the speaker. Students who feel that the wrong speakers are generally invited to campus might consider studying at a different school, where student organizations, united by different interests and values, choose different points of view to listen to. If the Chancellor judges that students will rise up violently against a speaker—i.e., that the Chancellor's authority cannot protect the speaker from violence—then the Chancellor should indeed disinvite the speaker. But this should lead to some serious reflection about what sort of culture the community fosters.

Banning protests and dis-inviting speakers are sometimes appropriate actions, I want to stress, but not always necessary. Some campuses will be able to trust their students to demonstrate peacefully and respectfully, even with a sense of humor. Berkeley's chancellor clearly cannot trust the culture of protest his students practice. I think the UC Berkeley community should be ashamed of itself this morning. And I think Chancellor Dirks has an important statement to issue in the days to come. I'm looking forward to seeing what he comes up with.

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