In light of the tragic events in Charlottesville, this report compiles media coverage and commentary on higher education and the alt-right. The report focuses on issues of free speech raised by the alt-right, advice for how campuses should respond to provocative right-wing speakers, coverage of planned right-wing appearances in Berkeley and the greater Bay Area, and relevant statements by and interviews with Berkeley and UC officials. The report begins with a narrative summary of these topics and concludes with a list of relevant links and article summaries. At the bottom, I’ve also included a small selection of writings from right-wing media outlets.
The First & Second Amendments
The rally in Virginia and other recent right-wing gatherings have claimed the mantle of free speech, raising the question of what kind of speech, if any, campuses and municipalities can ban. While some called for government action to block the gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, the ACLU – an institution the left has embraced with renewed vigor in the era of Trump – defended the marchers’ right to assemble. After the City of Charlottesville moved to pull the march’s event permit, the ACLU intervened to support what it has framed as free speech. As Vox notes, the ACLU is famous for defending the rights of Neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, IL in the 1970s. In a lengthy essay, Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept argues that accusations from left-wing activists that the ACLU enabled the Charlottesville tragedy are misguided, pointing out that the ACLU is the frequent target of the right for its support of left-wing groups and the legal defense it has provided for suspected terrorists. Such impartiality, Greenwald contends, is essential for the protection of civil liberties, as enabling the state to limit speech is a slippery slope.
Nonetheless, discord within the ACLU has grown since Charlottesville. As the LA Times notes, the “ACLU’s three California affiliates released a statement Wednesday declaring that ‘white supremacist violence is not free speech.'” Amid the criticism, the ACLU has announced it will not defend white supremacist groups that wish to protest with guns, a new stance for the organization.
Analysis by Slate highlighted how the presence of armed protestors creates a clear conflict between First and Second Amendment rights (while much attention has been paid to the weapons carried by the white nationalists in Charlottesville, the article claims guns were also carried by some anti-racist activists). The article argues that the presence of legally carried firearms makes police hesitant to intervene when skirmishes break out for fear of inciting a mass shooting. However, the skirmishes make it impossible for non-violent protestors to realize their First Amendment rights. As a result, in practice, “The right to bear arms overrides the right to free speech.” Nonetheless, the authors contend courts should consider limiting the right to bear arms in order to protect freedom of speech.
Confusing matters, many of the heavily-armed militia members who appeared in Charlottesville have stated they condemn white supremacy and the violence that occurred. As reported by the Guardian, militia leaders claim they intended only to protect first amendment rights, with one leader referring to the white supremacists as “rightwing lunatics.” Nonetheless, a photograph in the Atlantic clearly shows a self-styled militia member with a Confederate flag on his suit (the Guardian article includes a militia leader stating such racist displays are not associated with his movement). The relevant article in the Atlantic picks apart the militia’s line of reasoning, contending that openly carrying weapons is not a way to protect political speech but a means of chilling it.
But, is it possible the racist chants heard at the rally cross a legal line beyond protected speech? In 1942, the Supreme Court ruled “fighting words” are not protected, defining the term as “those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” In an article, Vox provided conflicting legal opinions on whether the chants heard at the rally constitute “fighting words.” Nonetheless, citing a string of comparatively-less offensive incidents in which offensive speech was ruled to be unprotected, the article concludes that some of the chants should not earn protection under the First Amendment.
Advice for Campuses
In a widely circulated report, the Southern Poverty Law Center offers advice for campuses where alt-right speakers intend to gather. In short, the SPLC suggests that such speakers intend to create a spectacle, and thus the best course of action is to offer a spectacle focused on inclusion far removed from the alt-right demonstrators. While the report doesn’t explicitly condemn Antifa for violent clashes with the alt-right, the report is being read as a condemnation of such tactics. So will students listen to the SPLC? According to a number of experts on social movements quoted in an article from Inside Higher Ed, it’s unlikely student activists will stay away.
Responses to planned alt-right campus events differ dramatically. While UC Berkeley leaders have stated they are willing to spend $500,000 to protect a single speaker, a number of schools are moving to cancel speeches. The Monday after Charlottesville, Texas A&M announced it would cancel an appearance by Richard Spencer, according to the New York Times. The University of Florida also denied a request from Spencer, citing the recent events in Virginia and social media posts that predicted violence. The university’s president stressed violence and not a desire to limit speech drove his decision. Legal challenges are possible, and this spring, a federal judge ruled Auburn University could not block an appearance by Spencer. The following event turned violent.
In an LA Times op-ed, two USC professors urged campus leaders to explicitly call alt-right protesters racist and acknowledge the influence such right-wing activism has on students on color. The op-ed was critical of UVA President Teresa Sullivan for not making this point clear enough. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education cites an array of campus leaders who feel that little can be done to prevent the presence of the alt-right, and, as a result, the focus should be on safety once they arrive. They stressed that the same things that make college campuses strong, inclusion and openness, are also what make it possible for the alt-right to appear.
Planned Alt-Right Events in the Bay Area
On Sunday, August 27, there are plans for a rally entitled “No to Marxism in America” in downtown Berkeley at MLK Civic Center Park. According to the Facebook invitation:
In America we have Marxism being taught in our schools and communities. Berkeley is a ground zero for the Marxist Movement and we need to speak out and say NO to Marxism. This event is our chance to speak out and expose the plan of purging our nation from a free nation to a communist nation. We will not tolerate this in America. So we are asking people to come stand against Marxism.
Berkeley’s mayor has said the city is exploring means to stop the event, which has no permit. An article in the LA Times notes the organizing effort behind the event is amorphous and not centered around a particular organization. On Friday, the Berkeley City Council passed an emergency ordinance in a 7-to-1 vote granting the city manager the ability to impose rules on street gatherings that do not have a permit. Previous rules allowed such control to be imposed within a park, but police lost their ability to enforce such rules if protestors spilled into the streets. The new rule sunsets on Dec. 31.
There are also plans for a rally on August 26 at San Francisco’s Chrissy Field, though local, state, and federal politicians have called for the National Park Service to deny a permit to the organization behind the event, Patriot Prayer. According to the Mercury News Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson, has publicly disavowed the Charlottesville attack. Gibson, who identifies as a Japanese American, said in an interview with a Portland TV station that he hopes white supremacists stay away from his events. As reported by the SF Chronicle, in an online video, he noted the rally will have speakers who are black, Hispanic, Asian and transgender. At previous rallies Gibson has organized, white supremacists have had a sizable presence. The issue of whether the August 26 rally will be permitted is unresolved, according to media reports.
Further, a student magazine, the California Patriot, has invited Milo Yiannopoulos to a four-day so-called free speech event, as noted by the New York Times. The organization has also invited Ann Coulter and David Horowitz. Details about the Yiannopoulos event have not been reported, though the alt-right leader has made declarations about intending to stage a week-long event on campus this fall. Former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro is scheduled to appear on campus September 14, though college Republicans criticized the campus for putting too many conditions on the appearance.
Much attention has fallen on Berkeley’s new chancellor, Carol Christ, who has dubbed the upcoming school year “Free Speech Year.” As the LA Times and Inside Higher Ed note, Christ plans to host a number of events intended to explore the history of free speech at Cal and to demonstrate the manner in which debate between opposing sides can elevate everyone’s understanding. The events are pegged as a rebuke to the style of violent protests and counter-protests that have engulfed Berkeley and other communities.
In order to limit such violence this school year, the campus has also instituted a new interim policy governing all outside campus speakers. According to the LA Times, “campus police will provide a security assessment for certain large events that could endanger public safety, and the hosting organizations will be responsible for basic costs. Such organizations will have to give advance notice, preferably eight weeks or longer, and provide detailed timetables — and contracts with speakers may not be finalized until the campus has confirmed the venue and given final approval. The rules will be applied to all events, regardless of viewpoint.” Campus leaders note these rules are not entirely new and instead are intended to eliminate any “gray areas.”
8/10 – Guide: The Alt-Right on Campus: What Students Need to Know (SPLCenter): The report advises, “While there’s nothing wrong with peaceful student protests against a hateful ideology, it’s best to draw attention to hope instead. Hold an alternative event – away from the alt-right event – to highlight your campus’ commitment to inclusion and our nation’s democratic values.”
8/16 – Will Students Stay Away From White Supremacists? (InsideHigherEd): Doug McAdam, an expert on social movements, says student activists are unlikely to avoid confrontation with the alt-right.
8/12 – When White Supremacists Descend, What Can a College President Do? (Chronicle): The article quotes James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, as saying, “(E)verything that white supremacists think is wrong with this country,” including the celebration of diversity and the integration of diverse histories into college curricula.
8/12 – Op-Ed: What UVA did wrong when white supremacists came to campus (LATimes): According to the two authors, “Mishandling these situations in raceless ways does nothing to confirm, for instance, that black lives matter. It signals to students and faculty that their university is either too unaware, too afraid or insufficiently skilled to talk about racism, let alone to address it.”
8/16 – After Charlottesville Violence, Colleges Brace for More Clashes (NYT): The article offers a run down of the response from a number of campuses of planned alt-right activity.
8/10 – An Anti-Hate Group Has This Advice for When the Alt-Right Comes to Campus (Chronicle): This article summarizes the SPLC’s guide.
8/18 – Op-ed: Charlottesville Will Move On (NYT): Charlottesville’s mayor insists restricting the democratic rights white supremacists exploit is not the path forward, instead emphasizing the responsibilities of various institutions to promote inclusiveness.
8/19 – Commentary: Charlottesville Was Not a Surprise (Slate): The author notes the existence of white supremacism should be no surprise, and that focusing anti-racist energy on removing Confederate statues “is the very least we can do.”
8/19 – The road to hate: For six young men, Charlottesville is only the beginning (WaPo): An expert at the SPLC compares the radicalization of alt-right supporters to Islamic extremists, saying it’s driven by personal failure, limited economic prospects and “a radical ideology promising answers.” As one extremist tells the Post, “White privilege, I’m still waiting for my privilege.”
Free Speech & the Right to Bear Arms
8/14 – The Guns Won (Slate): The authors write:
But of course, the presence of a gun itself dramatically heightens the odds that somebody is going to get shot. And, as Saturday proved, the presence of many guns, particularly the sort that can kill many people in very little time, may dissuade law enforcement from stepping in when a protest gets out of hand. The result is an alarming form of censorship: Nonviolent demonstrators lose their right to assemble and express their ideas because the police are too apprehensive to shield them from violence. The right to bear arms overrides the right to free speech. And when protesters dress like militia members and the police are confused about who is with whom, chaos is inevitable.
8/12 – Why the ACLU defends white nationalists’ right to protest — including in Charlottesville (Vox): While the ACLU has experienced some resignations over its support of the rally, the organization has not reversed its stance.
8/13 – The Misguided Attacks on ACLU for Defending Neo-Nazis’ Free Speech Rights in Charlottesville (TheIntercept): Greenwald writes:
The need to fight neo-Nazism and white supremacy wherever it appears is compelling. The least effective tactic is to try to empower the state to suppress the expression of their views. That will backfire in all sorts of ways: strengthening that movement and ensuring that those who advocate state censorship today are its defenseless targets tomorrow. And whatever else is true, the impulse to react to terrorist attacks by demanding the curtailment of core civil liberties is always irrational, dangerous, and self-destructive, no matter how tempting that impulse might be.
8/17 – In Backing Alt-Right, A.C.L.U. Embraces Role in Defending ‘Groups We Detest’ (NYT): The article notes the ACLU “stayed uncharacteristically quiet when the University of California, Berkeley, canceled speeches by two right-wing writers and provocateurs, Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, earlier this year, issuing statements and tweets, mainly after the controversy had already passed.”
8/15 – Some racist, homophobic chants in Charlottesville may not be protected under 1st Amendment (Vox): The article cites a number of cases in which speech was ruled illegal:
In 1999, a Minnesota appeals court found that calling a police officer a white, racist “motherfucker” and wishing his mother would die was not considered free speech.
In 2001, a Minnesota appeals court upheld a ruling (State v. Hubbard) that a man who repeatedly flashed lewd hand signals to a young female driver was not exhibiting protected speech. That same year, an appeals court in Arizona found that it was not free speech when a man called a black woman the n-word and threw an empty can of Mountain Dew at her on the street.
In 2003, a Wisconsin appeals court ruled that calling a nude woman on the beach a “whore,” “harlot,” and “Jezebel” was not protected.
In 2010, a North Dakota court upheld a ruling against a teen who called a black girl the n-word at a teen dance and then again at a restaurant. The defendant’s attorney argued that saying the n-word is not a crime. The court said that while the First Amendment does protect use of the slur, “an objectively reasonable person would find the totality of [the defendant’s] statements constituted explicit and implicit threats that were likely to incite a breach of the peace or violent reaction and alarm the listener.”
8/17 – Tensions grow inside ACLU over defending free-speech rights for the far right (LATimes): According to ACLU’s executive director, “(W)e believe that even odious hate speech, with which we vehemently disagree, garners the protection of the 1st Amendment when expressed non-violently. We make decisions on whom we’ll represent and in what context on a case-by-case basis. The horrible events in Charlottesville last weekend will certainly inform those decisions going forward.”
8/15 – Militia leaders who descended on Charlottesville condemn ‘rightwing lunatics’ (Guardian): A leader of the organization said he contacted local police before the event to offer help with security, a request that was denied, though police did provide an escort for the militiamen.
8/16 – The Chilling Effects of Openly Displayed Firearms (Atlantic): The article picks apart the argument that guns serve as the only means to deter political violence.
8/17 – ACLU Will No Longer Defend Hate Groups Protesting With Firearms (WSJ): The organization’s executive director told the paper, ““The events of Charlottesville require any judge, any police chief and any legal group to look at the facts of any white-supremacy protests with a much finer comb. If a protest group insists, ‘No, we want to be able to carry loaded firearms,’ well, we don’t have to represent them. They can find someone else.”
Events in the Bay Area
8/14 – Alameda County Sheriff deletes retweet of Richard Spencer (SFGate): the ACSO claims the retweet of the alt-right leader was accidental.
8/14 – Right-wing rallies planned in San Francisco, Berkeley (SJMN): The article was one of the first pieces reporting the rallies.
8/15 – San Francisco Leaders Question Permit For Alt-Right Rally at Crissy Field, Seek Security Precautions From Park Service (NBC/BayArea): The article quotes numerous local leaders opposed to the rally.
8/14 – ‘White supremacist’ patriot rally coming to San Francisco — counter-protest already planned (SFExaminer): The article notes a counter-protest was quick to organize.
8/15 – In wake of Charlottesville, Bay Area law enforcement girds for protests (SFGate): The article includes an interview with California-based white nationalist Nathan Damigo, who was involved in earlier Berkeley riots.
8/15 – S.F. Leaders Vow Fight to Stop Far Right Rally (KQED): The article says a decision about the permit should be made by Aug. 25, one day before the event.
8/16 – Northern California pushes back as white nationalists plan rallies (LATimes): Berkeley’s mayor urged people to ignore the rally and warned protestors, ““Anyone who threatens to engage in violence — and we have seen from earlier events that this is exactly their intent — will be arrested and punished to the fullest extent of the law.”
8/19 – Berkeley modifies city laws to empower officials during protests (SFGate): Some community members expressed concern the new rule ceded too much power to the police. The council introduced the sunset clause and a condition that such powers be exercised only when 100 or more participants are expected.
8/17 – Crissy Field rally group has history of provoking fights (SFChronicle): Despite the organizer’s claim of promoting a moderate position, his events have often led to fighting.
Berkeley & UC
8/15 – UC Berkeley chancellor unveils ‘Free Speech Year’ as right-wing speakers plan campus events (LATimes): Christ is quoted as saying, ““You have the right to expect the university to keep you physically safe, but we would be providing you less of an education, preparing you less well for the world after you graduate, if we tried to protect you from ideas that you may find wrong, even noxious.”
8/14 – Press Release: A message from the chancellor on Charlottesville (Berkeley): The statement condemns the violence and views of the white supremacists.
8/14 – Press Release: Letter from UC President Janet Napolitano on the violence in Charlottesville (UCOP): Napolitano calls the events in Charlottesville “domestic terrorism.”
8/15 – Leading Berkeley Through Free Speech Tests (InsideHigherEd): The article offers an overview of recent events on Berkeley’s campus and challenges ahead for Christ as she attempts to balance free speech and student safety.
Views from the Right
8/15 – Op-Ed: Campus Conservatives Gave the Alt-Right a Platform (NationalReview): While the author, an editorial intern, is critical of what he describes as left-wing intolerance, he criticizes college Republican groups for legitimizing a brand of conservatism that is anything but.
8/16 – Editorial: Trump and His ‘Very Fine People’ (WeeklyStandard): The editorial condemns Trump’s remarks about some “very fine people” marching in Charlottesville.
8/15 – White Nationalist Groups to Hold Rallies in San Francisco, Berkeley (Breitbart): The platform most commonly associated with the rise of white nationalism takes a traditional news lens on the matter:
At least two white nationalist groups are planning to hold rallies in San Francisco and Berkeley, California later this month. The announcements came just days after a white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — where members of the far-left Antifa movement were also present — turned deadly. 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer was killed when a car driven by a suspected neo-Nazi rammed into a crowd of participants. At least 19 others were injured.
8/16 – Major Figures Work To Mainstream Violent Antifa Protesters (DailyCaller): The far-right publication claims that comparisons of Antifa and WWII soldiers legitimates Antifa violence.
To suggest additions to this report, please contact tyler_leeds [at] berkeley.edu