Officials at the University of California at Berkeley on Thursday reversed their decision to cancel a speech by conservative firebrand Ann Coulter.
The university had announced Wednesday that it was canceling Coulter’s appearance following several political protests in Berkeley that turned violent.
But on Thursday, the university said it had found a venue where it could hold the speech on May 2, instead of the original April 27 date. However, a leader of the college Republican group that originally invited Coulter said the university was placing strict conditions on the event, and he said his group intended to reject the new terms.
Before the reversal was announced, Coulter had vowed to go ahead with an appearance anyway.
That probably would have put security officials on high alert and might have sparked another showdown in struggles over campus safety, student views and ideological openness.
“What are they going to do? Arrest me?” she said late Wednesday on the Fox News show “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
Coulter said she “called their bluff” by agreeing to rules set by the university seeking to prevent violence.
— Tucker Carlson (@TuckerCarlson) April 20, 2017
University officials originally sent a letter canceling the event to a campus Republican group that invited Coulter to speak. In it, university officials said Wednesday that they made the decision to cancel Coulter’s appearance after assessing the violence that flared on campus in February, when the same college Republican group invited right-wing provocateur and now-former Breitbart News senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos to speak. As the protest and clashes escalated during the Yiannopoulos’s event, some began setting fires, throwing rocks and molotov cocktails and attacking members of the crowd.
The violence and damage caused by Yiannopoulos’s invitation garnered national attention and forced officials to put the campus on lockdown. And after the university canceled Yiannopoulos’s talk, President Trump criticized the school and threatened in a tweet to pull federal funds from Berkeley.
If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2017
The decisions by Berkeley to cancel both events involving high-profile conservatives were especially notable given the campus’s role during the 1960s and 1970s as the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement and its long tradition of social protest.
Coulter said in an email to The Washington Post on Wednesday that the university had been trying to force her to cancel her speech by “imposing ridiculous demands” on her but that she still agreed “to all of their silly requirements.” She said she believes that her speech “has been unconstitutionally banned” by the “public, taxpayer-supported UC-Berkeley.”
Coulter said the university insisted that her speech take place in the middle of the day, that only students could attend and that the exact venue wouldn’t be announced until the last minute. She said that she agreed with the conditions but that apparently wasn’t good enough.
“They just up and announced that I was prohibited from speaking anyway,” Coulter said, noting that her speech topic was to be immigration, the subject of one of her books. “I feel like the Constitution is important and that taxpayer-supported universities should not be using public funds to violate American citizens’ constitutional rights.”
A conservative national group that was helping organize the event, Young America’s Foundation, said Coulter also made demands of her own, including that any students engaging in violence be expelled. In her email, Coulter said she is still planning to give her speech, and YAF spokesman Spencer Brown said she has told them that she plans to appear at Berkeley on April 27.
“If Berkeley wants to have free speech, they are going to get it,” Brown said.
A university spokesman said the school has not been in direct contact with Coulter but conveyed its concerns with the student group that invited her. He said the university was especially concerned that holding the event in the late afternoon would risk protests and potential violence stretching into the evening when the area would get crowded with commuters and students.
“Everything we’re doing is so the speaker and students can actually exercise their rights without disruption,” Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said. “It’s unfortunate that there are people who think the university’s efforts to keep students and the speaker herself safe are ‘silly.’ ”
On Wednesday, university officials said they hope to reschedule Coulter’s event for sometime in September, and they emphasized that they are not canceling her event because of her controversial nature or sharply conservative views.
“It has nothing to do with anyone’s political views. We believe in unqualified support to the First Amendment. But we also have an unqualified focus on safety of our students,” Mogulof said. “We are going to be making a concerted effort to explain the reasons behind this.”
The decision to cancel Coulter’s speech came drew sharp criticism from some on the campus, such as Robert Reich, a Berkeley professor who served as labor secretary under President Bill Clinton.
“This is a grave mistake,” Reich said in a Facebook post. He said universities should “do everything possible to foster and protect” free speech, writing that students should be allowed to hear Coulter’s arguments and question them.
“It’s one thing to cancel an address at the last moment because university and local police are not prepared to contain violence. … It’s another thing entirely to cancel an address before it is given, when police have adequate time to prepare for such eventualities,” he said.
On Saturday, protests again turned violent — though in the city of Berkeley, not the university campus — as pro-Trump and anti-Trump protesters clashed in the streets. The violence Saturday was further heightened later in the day as far-left activists and far-right activists joined the fray.
And on Tuesday at Auburn University in Alabama, three people were arrested amid protests and a fistfight that occurred over a speech by self-proclaimed white nationalist leader Richard Spencer.
At Berkeley, university officials said the recent violence has caused them to rethink where and when to hold such events. In their letter, university officials also partly blamed the college Republican group for inviting Coulter and setting a date for the event — April 27 — without consulting the university.
Officials learned of Coulter’s event, the letter said, from reading about it in newspapers. And after consulting with university police, officials said, they could not find a venue available on that date that would allow them to protect Coulter, the audience and bystanders.
Brian Murphy contributed to this report, which has been updated.