Hey, Berkeley Mayor: Do Your Job and Protect Free Speech in Your City

The possibility of violent reactions should not be used to call for censorship.


Berkeley protest
Emily Molli/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/Newscom

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin has had enough of violence bursting from protests of right-wing speakers in his city and at University of California Berkeley. So in order to end it, he wants the speakers to shut up, go away, and go bother somebody else.

Weekend violence from black-clad antifascist provocateurs disrupted a "Rally Against Hate" in Berkeley, and 13 people have been arrested. After the protest, Arreguin decided to buckle under the threat of the "thug's veto" and asked U.C. Berkeley to cancel an upcoming Free Speech Week at the college in September, where people like Milo Yiannopoulos are scheduled to speak.

"I'm very concerned about Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter and some of these other right-wing speakers coming to the Berkeley campus, because it's just a target for black bloc to come out and commit mayhem on the Berkeley campus and have that potentially spill out on the street," Arreguin said.

Yes, there is clearly some sort of trap being set here. There are an unknown number of people on each side in this ongoing public political battle especially invested in turning speech into violence. In this particular case, it seems most likely that violence is going to originate from the self-described "antifascist" side, as it has previously.

But let's be clear here. It is the job of Arreguin, the city government of Berkeley, and its police to protect the right of people within its borders to speak without facing violent responses. This is not some sort of additional source of frustration and labor for the city. One of the primary expectations of a city government is to protect the civil liberties of the people within its borders, and the right to speak freely and demonstrate peacefully are among those liberties.

Arreguin is hardly the only mayor to attempt to use violence as an excuse to abandon the responsibility to protect freedom. The mayor of Portland did the exact same thing in May when an apparently unstable man turned violent on a train and stabbed and killed two people. It was clearly a bizarre, isolated incident, yet Mayor Ted Wheeler made a huge performance out of trying to ban right wing protests in the city as a result.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe also just banned demonstrations temporarily at a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond while the state comes up with more regulations over the correct way they'll allow citizens to protest.

U.C. Berkeley should resist Arreguin's request, and Americans should reject the idea that violent reactions can be used as a justification for giving up on free speech. Instead, citizens need to be demanding that cities do a better job of both protecting protesters and holding individuals who engage in acts of violence criminally responsible.

It may be messy and it may not be easy (people intent on violence are masking their faces for a reason), but it's nevertheless the only real way of working through this current phase of public political resistance and coming out the other side with our rights intact. If Arreguin is not up for the job of protecting the people in his city from violence, he should consider whether he should be mayor.

He did propose another solution, one that is also terrible. He wants to possibly classify "Antifa" violent activists as a "gang." Such a proposition shows either an unwillingness or inability to hold individuals responsible for their own behavior and attempts to establish collective guilt. It would use California law as a tool to suppress the freedom of association rights of people who are classified as being in a gang rather than to punish actual criminal conduct.

And California's gang law enforcement is a mess as it is. A state audit in 2016 found very poor oversight and accountability within the system, resulting in people being added to the gang member database without supporting evidence that they should be there. You better believe that if California classified "Antifa" as a gang, there'd be some police officers looking to declare any mouthy protester who engaged in even nonviolent civil disobedience to be a member.