To conjure the threat of a riot these days, you really only need three words: “Berkeley” and “free speech.” Want to make a violent clash between far-right and far-left agitators almost inevitable? Add two more: “Milo Yiannopoulos,” the former Breitbart tech editor and internet arch-troll.
That’s the math UC Berkeley administrators were forced to do leading up to what was billed as “Free Speech Week,” a string of events and protests planned by Yiannopoulos and conservative student group Berkeley Patriot to take place this week. That particular cocktail—right-leaning extremists eager to speak hate, left-leaning antifascists eager to punch them—has turned First Amendment debate into an all-out brawl in Berkeley’s streets three times since February. And that’s not even counting the handful of tense, police-lined rallies that never escalated to tear-gas status.
But turning away controversial speakers looks a lot like censorship. And college campuses really do have a problem with limiting free expression, especially the expression of conservative views. That’s the trap Berkeley (the school, not the city) has found itself in: if it cancels these speeches, it does suppress speech, and proves right-wing extremists’ point, even when the events are habitually so badly organized it’s impossible to predict what will happen.
And besides, Yiannopoulos actually did show up to speak at Berkeley, despite the event’s official cancellation. So the administration had no choice but to shell out $800,000 for his police protection—even though he was only there for 30 minutes, and did little more than take selfies with fans, hold a “Feminism Is Cancer” sign, and sing the national anthem.
That changes the equation. Berkeley + free speech + right-wing provocateur no longer equals a riot. It equals a resource drain—subtracting funds directly from the university, the symbolic home of Yiannopoulos’ political opposition.
And in doing so, it might just be the slipperiest page yet in an already stacked playbook of trolls.
Berkeley (the school and the city) has been the archetypal hippy-dippy liberal paradise for half a century—and crucially, was home to the original, left-wing Free Speech Movement in the 1960s. All of that has made it the perfect symbol for both antifascist and “alt-right” political movements, though those groups disagree on whether Berkeley is a bastion of enlightenment or Satan’s preferred stomping ground. And now that these groups are taking their grievances offline and onto the mainstream streets of Berkeley, dismissing their activities as simply IRL stagings of Twitter fights trivializes what’s really going on. It’s a PR war—and one that right-wing provocateurs like Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, who staged her own costly feint of appearing at Free Speech Week are winning. Handily.
Opposing groups have duked it out over symbolic locations before. But typically when the combatants are extremist—as white nationalists and some antifascists are—those conflicts stay underground. White supremacists, for example, have been instigating fights at progressive punk and metal venues for decades. “Demonstrating strength and your ability to take over a space has been part of their recruitment strategy,” says Stanislas Vysotsky, a sociologist and criminologist at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater who studies antifascism. “But now that people are emboldened, it’s happening aboveground.”
The first ripple of that tactical shift was the rise of Yiannopoulos-style extreme trolling. It’s on the internet—and Twitter especially—that digitally savvy far right and its trolling icons figured out how to weaponize the First Amendment. Remember when Yiannopoulos got kicked off Twitter for inciting his followers to harass actress Leslie Jones? By shrugging off the harassment as something beyond his control, and making inflammatory statements like “Twitter just declared war on free speech,” Yiannopoulos drafted the blueprint for trolls to come. Consider it the IRL corollary to Poe’s Law: Yiannopoulos maintains that it’s not his fault if people take him at his (deliberately provocative, hateful, and often violent) word, and it’s completely within their rights to say, well, anything.
And it works. That strategy has allowed the far-right to wield Berkeley’s history of progressive activism against it. “They’re choosing the background that will get them the maximum amount of coverage,” says Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Internet Culture. “The university is getting tricked into sounding like they’re not in favor of free expression.” Every time Berkeley turns away a right-wing speaker out of concern for student safety or to avoid a riot, it reinforces the idea that the supposedly tolerant left are the real pro-censorship bullies here. That’s a PR masterstroke.
Before this, far-right trolling had two endgames: to raise visibility of trolls and their ideas, and to create chaos and confusion amongst the opposition. Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter have added a third—the money guzzling fake out. They (poorly, vaguely) plan an inflammatory talk at Berkeley on social media, and then either don’t show up (like Coulter) or say so little that preparations still feel like a waste (like Milo). And even if it wasn’t intentional this time, it sure will be now.
They’ve already come up with a their boilerplate justification. “Security costs are high because the modern left is feral,” says Mike Cernovich, a self-described “national security reporter” who spoke at the Free Speech Week press conference along with Yiannopoulos. “Refusing to speak would be to surrender to terrorists, which would be the most expensive bargain of all.” Yiannopoulos posted a similar statement on his Facebook page, again blaming the “violent left.”
That’s deflection—and doubles down on the false equivalence between antifa and white nationalists—but it does highlight the legal bind they’ve trussed Berkeley into. State universities are required not to cancel speaking events unless there is a clear and present danger. That’s why Yiannopoulos’ first talk, back in February, only got canceled when people started setting things on fire. Local governments, being state-run institutions, also cannot levy high fees on private groups. UC Berkeley, then, bears the brunt of the cost of protecting its speakers and students, while the student group inviting provocateurs onto campus holds no financial obligation.
The amendment they’re fighting over doesn’t help much either. The First Amendment protects even hate speech, and is pretty laissez-faire when it comes to provocation. “Would you hold the speaker who provoked the violence liable?” says Leslie Kendrick, a constitutional lawyer at the University of Virginia. “The First Amendment’s response is, ‘Hardly ever.'” You can’t claim censorship if your speech incites an imminent threat of violence, but that’s got the same amount of wiggle room as that clear and present danger rule. (Which is to say, it’s got lots.) If you dig back through the legal archives, you’ll find cases that stipulate “fighting words”—statements objectively likely to start a ruckus—as unprotected speech, but Kendrick says that standard hasn’t been applied by the Supreme Court in decades. And this new ploy insulates the far right from even that vague threat of regulation: nobody can legally argue that posing for photos and singing the Star Spangled Banner is a clear incitement.
So these one-time internet trolls can say—or not say, or sing—whatever they want, while forcing their political enemies to pay for it. Berkeley’s already paid at least $1.4 million protecting provocateurs since February. The UC system at large has pledged to help, but the university was already running at a budget deficit and has already suggested it might have to cap its speaker budget if this trend continues.
And why wouldn’t it? The far right’s icons have already won the PR war, whether they are allowed to speak or not. Trolls haven’t just moved off Twitter and into the real world—they’re headed straight for the bank.