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What will it cost to keep the peace at UC Berkeley’s free speech gig?

uc berkeley free speech
(File) Opposing factions gathered in April over the cancellation of conservative commentator Ann Coulter's speech at UC Berkeley. Source: Reuters/Stephen Lam.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars and a 16-member Navy SEAL team, at the very least.

In fact, Milo Yiannopoulos says he will “spare no expense” to keep himself and fellow conservatives, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and political pundit Ann Coulter, safe from rioters when they headline the “Free Speech Week” event planned for Sept 24 to 27.

The event by a student group called Berkeley Patriot may not go on at all, with a university official saying earlier this week that organisers have yet to complete the “critical steps” necessary for it to proceed – but Yiannopoulos says he won’t have any of that.

In a strongly-worded Facebook posting on Thursday, the far-right provocateur accused the official – UC Berkeley’s assistant vice chancellor Dan Mogulof – of spreading “fake news”.

“Ignore him,” he wrote. “Mogulof has a long history of hostility, leaks and lies when it comes to conservative speakers.”

He insisted the event must go on “no matter what Berkeley says” and must become “the best free speech event Berkeley has ever seen”, before revealing plans to have Navy SEALs provide security for him and fellow speakers. A few weeks ago, he pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide security for the event.

There’s a reason for Yiannopoulos’ dogged determination. Attempts by controversial personalities to speak at the university last semester sparked protests and cancellations, while demonstrations in Berkeley have racked up a massive US$1.5 million bill for local law enforcement alone, just to keep the peace.

The Chronicle, whose writers reviewed the expense data, said the authorities, including from the university, have had to police four protests since the first in February when masked anarchists forced the school to cancel a planned speech by Yiannopoulos.

Coulter, whose expected appearance at the campus in April drew crowds of far right and far left supporters at the Civic Center Park nearby, decided to call off her talk at the last minute, citing security concerns.

There was no fighting in April, but according to The Chronicle, data shows it cost the most, with UC Berkeley forking out nearly US$700,000 for expenses, including engaging the help of East Bay police departments as well as lodging, meals and equipment of officers from other campuses.

There’s no telling what the Free Speech Week this month-end will cost just yet but this evening’s event with Ben Shapiro has been described as something of a test-run.

According to reports, administrators will close buildings nearby, hours before the Harvard law graduate and political commentator takes the stage for his sold-out session, in order to establish a secure perimeter around the Zellerbach Hall where he will speak. The university is also closing off balcony seats at the hall as a security measure.

Berkeley city police meanwhile have been granted permission to use pepper spray on violent protesters, should any show up.

Regardless the outcome of Shapiro’s gig, however, it looks likely that Free Speech Week will proceed. As the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, the university stands as a symbol of academic freedom, and is facing pressure from all sides to stay the course.

On top of that, because the speakers for the coming event are being hosted by independent student groups, the school “does not have the legal right or desire to interfere with or cancel their invitations based on the perspectives and beliefs of the speakers”, according to a UC Berkeley spokesman in an email to Campus Reform.

“Where we do have discretion is around everything that has to do with the safety of our communities. That priority, along with our commitment to free speech, remains at the center of our planning and preparations for future events.”

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