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 previously 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 a different day May 2, instead of the original April 27 date.
Coulter and the group arranging her event said they are rejecting the new invitation.
In a series of tweets Thursday night, Coulter criticized the university, saying Berkeley officials were adding “burdensome” conditions to her speech. She said she had already spent money to hold the event on the original April 27 date and is not available May 2. She also pointed out that May 2 would coincide with a reading period before final exams, when there are no classes on campus and a fewer students around.
And she vowed that she is going to speak in Berkeley on the originally planned April 27 date, whether the university approved or not.
A leader of the college Republican group that invited Coulter also said his group planned to reject the new terms and alleged that the university is placing strict conditions on the event.
A Berkeley spokesman, however, rejected the claim that the university is placing unreasonable restrictions on Coulter’s event. The one main request the university made in extending their new invitation was to hold the event in the afternoon, said Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof. Holding the event in the later in the day would risk protests and potential violence stretching into the evening when the campus tends to get crowded with commuters and students.
In their offer to Coulter to host her speech on campus on the new date, Mogulof said, the university has asked for the event end by 3 p.m. or 3:30 p.m.
“Everything we’re doing is so the speaker and students can actually exercise their rights without disruption,” Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said. “It’s hard to understand this display of disdain and disregard for the assessment of law enforcement professionals, particularly when they’re primary concern is the safety and well-being of college students.”
Even before the university’s new invitation and date was announced, Coulter had vowed to go ahead with an appearance anyway. If she does appear next week as she has promised, it will probably put security officials on high alert and may spark still further debate on the campus as the university wrestles with 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.
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.
The decision 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.
In a statement explaining the university’s surprising reversal on Thursday, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks framed it mainly as a problem of safety and finding a suitable venue. “Our police department has made it clear that they have very specific intelligence regarding threats that could pose a grave danger to the speaker, attendees and those who may wish to lawfully protest the event,” said Dirks. “At the same time, we respect and support Ms. Coulter’s own First Amendment rights.”
Dirk said that after the cancellation was already announced on Wednesday, he asked university staff to “look beyond the usual venues we use for large public gatherings to see if there might be a protectable space for this event….Fortunately, that expanded search identified an appropriate, protectable venue.”
Before the university reversed its decision, 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.
But on Wednesday, when university officials initially cancelled the event, they emphasized that they are not canceling her event because of her controversial nature or sharply conservative views and said they were trying to reschedule it for September
“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.
As recently as last weekend, 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 on Saturday escalated throughout 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.
When Berkeley officials initially made their decision to cancel Coulter’s speech, they said the recent violence has caused them to rethink where and when to hold such events. In their earlier 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.
Perry Stein and Brian Murphy contributed to this report, which has been updated.