Controversy stirred after UC Berkeley cancels Milo Yiannopoulos speech

School officials say they removed Mr. Yiannopoulos from campus 'amid the violence and destruction of property and out of concern for public safety.'

Stephen Law/Reuters
Police officers prepare to deploy a skirmish line after a student protest turned violent at UC Berkeley during a demonstration over right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, who was forced to cancel his talk, in Berkeley, California, on February 1, 2017.

A talk by far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos planned for Thursday at the University of California’s Berkeley campus was canceled after a group of demonstrators destroyed property and ignited explosives, prompting a campus lockdown.

About 1,500 protestors turned up to peacefully voice their opposition to the event, organized by the Berkeley College Republicans. But after a smaller group of “Black Block” anarchists arrived, according to the university, the protest took a chaotic turn, leading administrators to call off the talk.

"The violence was instigated by a group of about 150 masked agitators who came onto campus and interrupted an otherwise non-violent protest," the university said in a statement, adding that the group had thrown commercial-grade fireworks at police and ignited other small explosives, in addition to smashing windows at the student union center where the event was scheduled to occur. 

At least six people were injured, according to CNN, with a university spokesman blaming the “Black Bloc” protestors for attacks. The incident promises to resurface debates over the role of universities and other institutions in protecting – or promoting – expression that many consider tantamount to hate speech.

Mr. Yiannopoulos, a Breitbart News editor who gained a following in alt-right circles for a style of provocation often denounced as racist and sexist, has gained notoriety for testing the limits of free speech. Last year, he was banned from Twitter for inciting a campaign of racist abuse against African-American “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones. A recent book deal inked with Simon & Schuster prompted other authors to cut ties with the publisher. And his talks planned by student Republicans groups at Michigan State University, DePaul University, New York University, and the University of California-Davis have been canceled amid protests or even violent altercations.

"Our community is founded on principles of respect for all views, even those that we personally find repellent," UC Davis Interim Chancellor Ralph Hexter said after canceling Yiannopoulos's event in January. "As I have stated repeatedly, a university is at its best when it listens to and critically engages opposing views, especially ones that many of us find upsetting or even offensive." 

The high cost of security for such controversial events has challenged public universities, in particular. 

"UC Berkeley officials and UCPD went to extraordinary lengths to plan for this event, working closely with the Berkeley College Republicans and putting the appropriate resources in place to maintain security," the school said in a Wednesday statement. "Officials were in contact with other university campuses where Yiannopoulos had been asked to speak, and they paid close attention to lessons learned. Dozens of additional police officers were on duty for Wednesday’s scheduled event, and multiple methods of crowd control were in place. Ultimately, and unfortunately, however, it was impossible to maintain order given the level of threat, disruption and organized violence."

The incident also caught the attention of President Trump, who responded by raising the possibility of cutting federal funding to the university in a Thursday morning tweet

"If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?" he wrote.

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