UC Davis embroiled in another free-speech controversy

Five years after the pepper-spraying of peaceful protesters swamped UC Davis with negative publicity, another free-speech controversy thrust the normally quiet campus into the national spotlight this weekend.

On Friday, the Davis College Republicans canceled speeches by a far-right website editor and a notorious former pharmaceutical executive after raucous protesters created an atmosphere that campus administrators and police deemed dangerous.

The editor, Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart News, returned to campus Saturday, leading a counterprotest march of sorts and accusing the university on Facebook of forcing Friday’s event to stop before it started.

“UC Davis is lying to the press,” Yiannopoulos wrote. “They keep saying that the College Republicans were the ones to shut down the event last night. Not true. My staff were in meetings with the campus police and university administrators last night and were told by them that the event could not proceed.”

Kimberly Hale, a spokeswoman for UC Davis, said the university did not specifically order the shutdown. Instead, she said, police presented the student group with their concerns about how the situation was unfolding, and the group made the decision to cancel the speech.

“They (the College Republicans) were presented with the details of what was happening around the venue that evening,” Hale said. “Protesters were blocking the entrance, so to be able to get the ticketed persons inside the venue, that would have been difficult.”

Moving the protesters aside presented safety concerns, said university police spokesman Andy Fell.

“We advised them that it would not be possible to continue safely,” Fell said. “The protest was becoming increasingly rowdy and antagonistic. We felt it wouldn’t be possible or feasible to get the ticketed attendees into the venue and get their bags checked. ... It couldn’t continue without further escalation.”

University officials took issue with news reports, including on Breitbart, that described the protest as violent. Breitbart’s accounts of the event include “hammers, smashed windows and barricades being torn away,” and Yiannopoulos wrote on Facebook that guests were sprayed with urine and had bags of feces thrown at them, and punches were thrown at officers.

Fell said that while the situation was tense, there was no violence. No weapons were seized and no windows were broken. One protester was arrested inside the venue prior to the event, he said.

Experts said that whatever transpired Friday night, it was a sorry night for freedom of speech at UC Davis, with speakers on one or both sides being silenced by the actions of others.

“It sounds like the worst of all worlds happened here. Nobody got to speak,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition in San Rafael. “That’s not a good result.”

From the moment it was announced in November, Friday’s event at UC Davis prompted controversy. Initially, only Yiannopoulos, a senior editor for the online magazine Breitbart, was scheduled to speak. Breitbart’s former chairman, Steve Bannon, has been appointed as President-elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist, and Yiannopoulos is popular with the “alt-right” movement, an offshoot of conservatism that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism.

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Yiannopoulos was invited to visit campus Friday as part of his nationwide college tour, which he has used in part to denounce Islam and discuss feminism as a “war on men.” On prior stops of the tour, organizers or campus administrators sometimes have canceled his appearance because of security concerns. A bomb threat arose during his visit to Florida Atlantic University in October.

Later, Martin Shkreli was added to the bill. Shkreli is the hedge-fund founder of Turing Pharmaceuticals who made headlines in 2015 for raising the price of the lifesaving drug Daraprim by more than 5,000 percent. He has been charged with securities fraud and is free on $5 million bail.

The duo were set to speak at the Sciences Lecture Hall on Friday evening. Protesters started gathering two hours before its start with signs alluding to hate speech and fascism. As the evening continued, roughly 150 protesters gathered in front of the hall’s entrance, chanting and picketing as ticket holders waited to be admitted.

The event was called off shortly before 7 p.m. Friday and an announcement was made on social media, as the College Republicans said they would “not stand for the regressive left perpetuating violence, censoring speech, and spreading hate.” The group said it made the decision to cancel on advice from the UC Davis Police Department and campus administration.

Andrew Mendoza, president of the UC Davis College Republicans, said the group’s hands were tied because administration officials and police told the organizers that hammers had been confiscated from the crowd, and that they were concerned about safety should the event continue.

In two Sacramento Bee interviews Saturday, Fell, the Police Department spokesman, said that no weapons of any kind were confiscated at the protest, and that the talk of hammers going around was merely rumor.

Yiannopoulos and Shkreli went back to the Hyatt Regency Sacramento, across from the state Capitol, where Shkreli talked to campus Republicans about Ronald Reagan’s “silent majority” and offered to buy them drinks.

Saturday about 2 p.m., Yiannopoulos returned to campus, where he stood on a picnic table outside Memorial Union to decry the cancellation of his speech. “They can’t stop us,” he told a crowd of about 150 people, many of them his supporters. “They can’t stop us electing the president we want, wearing the clothes we want, using the language we want.”

Walking through the campus quad, he was quickly tailed by a crowd chanting, “USA, USA.” An hour into the march, Yiannopoulos called for a re-enactment of the UC Davis pepper-spray incident with him and other volunteers taking on the “fetal protester position – on the ground, where they belong.” He asked volunteers to spray him with Silly String.

Protesters stood on a picnic table with their own megaphone, periodically interrupting Yiannopoulos with comments about respecting diversity.

Shkreli did not return to campus Saturday.

Ed Costantini, professor emeritus of political science at UC Davis, said Friday night’s events raise an important question about free speech.

“On the one hand, from a free speech perspective, it’s appropriate to have controversial speakers,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s also appropriate to protest those speakers. The rub comes when the protest prevents the speakers from speaking.”

Snyder, with the First Amendment Coalition, said that what happened at UC Davis on Friday may have been what’s called “the heckler’s veto.” That’s when someone shouts so loud that a speaker is unable to continue, or when government officials, including police, silence a speaker to prevent anticipated violence. Such actions violate the speaker’s First Amendment rights, courts have ruled.

“It’s like a person standing up at city hall and yelling and causing (the meeting) to stop,” Snyder said. “One speaker doesn’t have the right to overshadow other speakers or cause so much commotion that the other person is drowned out.”

“The best solution is to have both of those points of view aired, not for one of those points of view to shout down the other.”

Bee staff writer Nashelly Chavez contributed to this report.

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

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