UC Davis interim Chancellor Ralph Hexter said Thursday he will form a group to examine how to ensure even the most controversial speakers can deliver their messages on campus, weeks after former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos canceled his engagement in the face of protests.
The work group of students, faculty and staff will recommend practices and policies to ensure that speakers can deliver their messages unimpeded, Hexter said in a letter released Thursday to the UC Davis community.
“When we prevent words from being delivered or heard, we are trampling on the First Amendment,” Hexter said. “Even when a speaker’s message is deeply offensive to certain groups, the right to convey the message and the right to hear it are protected.”
The Jan. 13 Yiannopoulos incident drew condemnation from conservatives who said campus protesters were stifling free speech, while some activists said on social media that the safety risks posed by demonstrators were exaggerated.
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University police spokesman Andy Fell said at the time, “We advised (organizers) that it would not be possible to continue safely. The protest was becoming increasingly rowdy and antagonistic.”
Hexter said that he cannot recall a period in his lifetime in which the national discourse was more vitriolic and polarized. He noted that as a public university, faculty and student clubs are allowed to invite speakers with diverse views. The perspectives of the speakers are not screened, Hexter said.
Through the years, requests have been made to ban speakers. Those demands have intensified, Hexter said.
However, he said, consistent with the law and keeping in mind the First Amendment, the university does not exercise prior constraint on speech. Controversial speakers inspire protest, he noted. The university supports “properly conducted protests” because protesters also enjoy free speech protections, Hexter said.
Hexter said that it was unfortunate that at an event last year protesters shouted down and for a time blocked the audience from observing a speaker. He was referring to a March 2016 appearance by Israeli diplomat George Deek organized by Aggies for Israel, according to Fell. In that instance, anti-Israel protesters disrupted Deek, though he was able to finish his speech.
In the Yiannopoulos incident and Deek event, the UC Davis community fell short of permitting free speech and an exchange of ideas, Hexter said.
“Like most places of higher learning and teaching, UC Davis is a community for all ideas, and our campus is committed to ensuring that all members are allowed to freely hear, express and debate different points of view,” Hexter said.
Yiannopoulos has become popular within the self-described “alt-right” movement, an offshoot of conservatism that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism. He resigned this week from Breitbart News over a video in which he defended older men having sexual relations with young boys.
He was invited to visit UC Davis as part of a nationwide college tour, which he has used in part to denounce Islam and discuss feminism as a “war on men.” On prior stops, organizers or campus administrators sometimes canceled his appearance because of security concerns.
He and former drug CEO Martin Shkreli, who became famous after his company dramatically raised the cost of a drug used by HIV patients, were set to speak at the UC Davis Sciences Lecture Hall. About 150 protesters gathered in front of the hall’s entrance, chanting and picketing as ticket holders waited to be admitted.
Hexter noted that protesters managed to prevent orderly entry so the speech was canceled. A later scheduled appearance at UC Berkeley was also canceled due to violent protests on Feb. 1.