After 20 were arrested and 11 injured on April 15, 2017, protests in Berkeley, California continued on Thursday the 27th, when hundreds gathered near the University of California’s campus to protest conservative speaker Ann Coulter’s event. Coulter told Fox News that her event was ultimately canceled by the university, who, after dragging their feet in what Coulter believes was an attempt to get her to pull-out, cited threats of violence as to the reason why the event was canceled. Coulter told Tucker Carlson that she is not buying it, “There are ways of dealing with violence… we do have a police force,” Coulter argued. Of course, the University of California-Berkeley has an obligation to protect the safety of students, but is the school not also obligated as an academic institution to cultivate and defend an environment where productive discussions on controversial topics can take place despite diverging views? So Coulter is correct in saying the police exist so that academic institutions can uphold their latter obligation. Whether one shares Coulter’s political views is irrelevant. The question remains: where do the decision makers draw the line between free speech and safety, recognizing the former to be integral to the purpose of academic institutions?
Like many local law enforcement agencies, the Berkeley Police Department provides a “Protest 101” checklist for organizers. Among the list of details the Berkeley Police Department asks organizers to provide is indication of whether they would like “symbolic arrests.” Taxpayers should not being funding “symbolic” arrests, Berkeley is by no means the only local law enforcement agency that will conspire with protesters to plan a “symbolic” arrest, though Berkeley was the first - to my knowledge - to be exposed by a large media source such as the Wall Street Journal. I applaud the Berkeley Police Department for making clear their commitment to supporting speech and assembly protected by the constitution. That being said, essentially saying, ‘oh it’s fine to break the law and we’ll allow you to do it to make a scene’ is not something our local law enforcement agencies should be doing.
For those interested in reading a detailed first-person account of a recent experience similar to that of Coulter, I recommend reading Heather Mac Donald's reflection on her experience at Claremont McKenna College.
You can follow Jack Wagstaff on Twitter: @wagstaffjh
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