It began as a peaceful protest. The students of UC Berkeley flocked to Sproul Plaza in early February equipped with slogans, signs and chants opposing a speech by alt-right firebrand and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos as well as the president he supports, Donald Trump, then freshly sworn into office. As the day progressed, tensions flared—peaceful protest soon erupted into a violent demonstration, when about 150 agitators emerged and created chaos.
Campus lights were thrashed and tagged with Milo’s name, becoming kindling for a fiery and explosive night of opposition. Metal barricades became battering rams, and at least five people were injured by the end of the night—one of which, was shot with pepper spray during an interview with reporters. Known as one of the most liberal college campuses in America, Berkeley showed another face to its two-sided political coin. The events of that night illustrated a dramatic introduction to a new Trumpian America—an America where the freedoms of speech, press and assembly would be put to the test.
Once the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, Sproul Plaza has become a battleground—a microcosm for the free speech debate on college campuses nationwide.
Free speech zones became popular in the 1960s in the midst of widespread protest against the Vietnam War. Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza became a pivotal part of the commitment to free speech on college campuses nationwide, as protesters wanted to share their frustrations publicly. While student activism has declined since the 1960s, many schools continue to implement free speech zones as a way to regulate public demonstrations.
At Santa Ana College, the designated free speech zone includes the open courtyard in front of the C building and the Cesar Chavez building, which is currently available for reservation. Due to construction across campus, additional free speech zones near the L building, R building and E building are currently closed.
“Free speech has a relevancy. The vote polls are informative and teach us about many things,” said David Carroca, a SAC sophomore. While many students on campus believe exercising free speech is important, there are others who believe some restrictions are necessary, including the use of free speech zones.
“There should be restrictions for free speech. I don’t like how people come to me and ask me to sign things. I just want to be left alone,” said Jose Carroca, a third-year student at SAC (no relation to David).
In a speech at Georgetown University last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed students, faculty and protesters, acknowledging the growing concerns over free speech and designated free speech zones on college campuses.
“A national recommitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring First Amendment rights is long overdue,” Sessions said, citing both support for controversial speakers at UC Berkeley and a lawsuit against a Georgia college concerning free speech violations.
The lawsuit, filed last year against administrators at Georgia Gwinnett College, states the school violated a student’s First and 14th Amendment rights. Chike Uzuegbunam was sharing evangelical pamphlets with students outside the school’s designated free speech zones without a permit, and was stopped by school officials. After Uzuegbunam reserved a space within a free speech zone, students complained his speech about God was disturbing the peace, and that was soon
restricted as well.
Sessions also addressed the growing effort to silence controversial speakers, whose opinions conflict with protesters. While opposition is often peaceful, as was the case during Sessions’ speech, with students taping their mouths shut to protest the Trump administration, other cases have turned violent.
“People use fear, not passion, when violence is used. Violence isn’t necessary for a protest, if you are passionate about it,” Jose said.
Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, which draws a relationship between poor socio-economic standings with race and intelligence, faced opposition at an event last March, hosted by Middlebury College in Vermont. Both Murray and faculty member Allison Stanger were assaulted by masked agitators, pushed and shoved in a hallway while leaving an interview. The assailant yanked Stanger’s hair, twisting her neck and leaving her in a neck brace.
Yiannopoulos made a visit to Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza in September, after the school’s “Free Speech Week” was cancelled a day before its launch. The student publication organizing “Free Speech Week”, the Berkeley Patriot, was unable to confirm a final guest list or book multiple indoor venues across campus.
Campus organizers later filed a complaint with the Department of Justice, saying campus officials set up hurdles to prevent the group from exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.
“Claims that this is somehow the outcome desired by the campus are without basis in fact. The University was prepared to do whatever was necessary to support the First Amendment rights of the student organization,” said Dan Mogulof, university spokesman. Mogulof also stated the university was prepared to spend over one million dollars to ensure the safety of the event.
The university has accrued over a million dollars in security costs since February, spending about $600,000 for hosting conservative radical Ann Coulter, whose event was later cancelled, and another $600,000 for talks by conservative writer Ben Shapiro. While schools list these as security expenditures, it has become a price tag —a monetary measurement for the true cost of free speech in America.