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Why A Potential 'Free Speech Week' At Berkeley Is Causing A Stir

A conservative student group at the University of California, Berkeley, and far-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos (shown here in New York) are planning to host an event they're calling "Free Speech Week" starting on Sunday.

Tensions continue to mount at the University of California, Berkeley, where a conservative student group is planning to host an event it's calling "Free Speech Week" starting on Sunday.

The event is sponsored by The Berkeley Patriot, an online publication, and the controversial far-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos. The university canceled an appearance by the former Breitbart editor in February due to security concerns, which set off a fierce debate about free speech on campus.

Organizers are pushing ahead with planning for the event, despite the school's announcement on Monday that the group had missed deadlines to book multiple indoor venues on campus, The Washington Post reports.

Steve Bannon, former adviser to President Trump, and conservative commentator Ann Coulter were also reportedly scheduled to speak, but it's not clear whether they will still appear. Coulter was also previously scheduled to appear at Berkeley in April, but her speech was abruptly canceled and protests followed.

The confusion around whether Bannon and Coulter will appear is "part of the whole chaos" that has preceded these events in Berkeley, says John Sepulvado, host of KQED's The California Report.

"It is part of the M.O. of these activities ... to be as confusing and disorienting as possible," Sepulvado tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson.

Yiannopoulos posted a YouTube video this week saying the university is using "slippery and bureaucratic tactics" to try to prevent the event from happening.

The university has not tried to outright cancel the event, as Yiannopoulos suggests, but a group of about 130 professors, graduate students and lecturers are calling for a boycott of classes and university events next week.

An open letter argues that many students, faculty and staff will feel unsafe at school because of the anti-immigrant, anti-female, anti-gay rhetoric of many of the speakers. They say they also fear there may be an "uncontrollable confrontation" during the week.

Since Yiannopoulos' appearance was canceled earlier this year, students and right-wing groups have criticized Berkeley – widely considered to be one of the centers of the free speech movement in the 1960s – for shutting down conservative speech. Berkeley officials say the school is committed to preserving free speech, but at the same time must protect safety on campus.

A new Brookings Institution survey of college students provides data to support anecdotal evidence that free expression is under threat on U.S. campuses. The nationwide survey found that 19 percent of students believe it is acceptable to resort to violence in order to shut down speech deemed offensive.

The survey also found that 44 percent of students believe the First Amendment does not protect hate speech.

But the First Amendment does protect hate speech, in part because there isn't a legal definition for it, says Santa Clara University law professor Margaret Russell.

A person can only be prosecuted for a specific crime associated with the hate speech, but not the speech on its own, she explains.

"I think the law is pretty clear, at least to the extent that hate speech is not considered, by itself, to be unprotected under the First Amendment," Russell told Here & Now's Hobson in February. "So, if people want to enact laws or if people want to prosecute people who violate the law, the prosecution can't be based on the viewpoint of the person. It has to be based on the underlying crime."

The free speech debate has grown more contentious in light of the growing number of nationwide protests since President Trump took office. In August, a woman was killed after a group of white supremacists and neo-Nazis at a "Unite the Right" rally violently clashed with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va.

Sepulvado of KQED says it's no coincidence the far-right is using Berkeley – one of the most liberal cities in the U.S. – as the center of this debate.

"It's become a center of far-right speech because the far-right has taken the tactic – and Milo Yiannopoulos being the prime example — of essentially trolling people who wouldn't want to hear it — and that's what this is," Sepulvado says. "When I talked to Berkeley Patriot, and I said, you know, 'What is the academic value of having Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos speak on campus?' They say there isn't any. They are the first to acknowledge that there is no academic value."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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