Berkeley plans $1 million spend on security for Milo Yiannopoulos’ event amid massive budget cuts

“We need the money to feed our students,” one professor told ThinkProgress.

University of California, Berkeley police guard the building where Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos was to speak February 1, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ben Margot
University of California, Berkeley police guard the building where Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos was to speak February 1, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ben Margot

University of California-Berkeley is moving forward with plans to spend upwards of $1 million on security for far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’ so-called “Free Speech Week,” despite conflicting reports over whether the event will proceed. The spending comes amid recent budget cuts across the university that faculty say have affected much-needed services.

Reports circulated Friday afternoon that the Berkeley Patriot, a conservative student group that’s sponsoring the event, had backed out. But in an email to ThinkProgress, John Sarsfield, of the law firm Melo and Sarsfield, which represents the Berkeley Patriot, called those reports “a rumor … by unknown persons.”

“They are not pulling out of the event,” Sarsfield told ThinkProgress.

Sarsfield also confirmed earlier reports that the Berkeley Patriot sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice asking it to open a civil rights investigation into UC-Berkeley. The letter, dated Tuesday and addressed to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, accuses school administrators of violating the group’s First Amendment rights.

“The students of the Berkeley Patriot believe that the UC Berkeley administration has adopted a practice of de facto viewpoint discrimination,” says the letter, which Sarsfield shared with ThinkProgress.

Dan Mogulof, UC-Berkeley’s associate vice chancellor, said the Berkeley Patriot has not told school administrators it will cancel the event.

“Our police department, working in concert with an unprecedented number of allied law enforcement agencies, will continue with preparations to provide needed security for these events,” Mogulof said in a statement. “There is only one reason the University is in the process of spending close to a million dollars on these security arrangements: if these events take place we want them to safe and peaceful.”

Through a representative, Yiannopoulos said he will clarify whether or not the event is cancelled in a press conference Saturday.

The security plan that’s already in place, which the university says it’s moving forward with until further notice, would waste resources on a campus where students say they need more financial support.

“The university is more concerned with its public image than its student body,” Juan Prieto, who graduated from Berkeley in May and now works in the university’s center for undocumented students, told ThinkProgress.

After speaking on campus in February and provoking riots, Yiannopoulos planned Free Speech Week to troll the campus, which was home to the 1960s Free Speech Movement.

The four-day event was slated to include high-profile speakers like former senior White House advisor Steve Bannon and conservative commentators Mike Cernovich and Ann Coulter. But Coulter and Cernovich backed out Friday afternoon, according to the Los Angeles Times. Most of the other speakers were still unconfirmed.

A separate speech by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro last week cost the university more than the $600,000 in security. Free Speech Week will costs much more, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Dan Mogulof told Mother Jones last week.

“We’re looking at an extraordinary level of cost—well in excess of a million dollars,” Mogulof said.

UC-Berkeley currently faces a $110 million budget deficit. Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, has said the school needs to reduce that by $53 million this year. In July, UC-Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ asked for $25.4 million in budget cuts across academic and administrative departments for fiscal year 2018.

“They spent $600,000 to defend hate speech. That’s money that could have gone to students who are housing insecure or skipping meals.”

Prieto said that students on campus, especially undocumented immigrants and other marginalized populations, will be disproportionately impacted. At the university’s Dreamer’s Resource Center, he works with students who are housing insecure, often skip meals, and are contemplating dropping out of school because “they feel the political climate is taking a lot of their energy.”

He called it an “embarrassment” that the university is willing to spend that much money for an event that will allow people with extreme, hateful opinions to come out of the shadows.

“They spent $600,000 to defend hate speech,” he said. “That’s money that could have gone to students who are housing insecure or skipping meals. These are students coming from those same communities that the alt-right is targeting…. It really was a waste of resources that the university just cannot be wasting.”

Food insecurity is a growing issue at UC-Berkeley, where a significant number of students run out of food on their meal plan before the end of a semester and end up going hungry, according to Katrin Wehrheim, a professor of mathematics who’s helped organize against Yiannopoulos and other extreme-right speakers. Data specific to Berkeley does not exist, but the 2014 UC Undergraduate Experience Survey found that 26 percent of undergraduates across nine UC campuses reported at least somewhat often skipping meals to save money. In 2010, that number was just 22 percent.

Wehrheim told ThinkProgress that the money the university is spending on security could help keep food on those students’ tables.

“Where are our values if we don’t find money for that but we find money for completely out-of-proportion militarization of campus?” Wehrheim asked.

Prieto said he has pressured the university to help its struggling students, but that may prove impossible when the campus is both spending millions on security and trying to cut its budget.

The university has tried to lessen the impact of the deficit on students, according to a statement, excluding scholarships, contracts and grants, academic salaries and benefits, student health insurance, and sexual harassment prevention programs from the cuts.

Still, this year’s budget cuts come on the heels of a $40 million deficit reduction last fiscal year, primarily through budget cuts — part of a five-year plan to eliminate the $110 million deficit.

“We will continue to seek ways to increase revenues to offset the need to make cuts,” Christ said in a letter to the campus community in June. “The reductions are nonetheless painful.”

Yiannopoulos advertises Free Speech Week in a YouTube video. CREDIT: Screenshot
Yiannopoulos advertises Free Speech Week in a YouTube video. CREDIT: Screenshot

Because UC-Berkeley will struggle to cover the security for “Free Speech Week” on its own, the University of California system will pitch in $300,000, Napolitano told the Los Angeles Times this week. In an interview with Politico, Napolitano called the four-day event “a test” for the university.

“It’s a cost that the university is bearing to protect the speakers but also to protect the value of free speech,” she said, noting that UC-Berkeley is caught between “the rock and the hard place” when it comes to honoring free speech from people with “controversial and noxious ideas” and protecting students.

“I think it’s important that if these events are going to occur, that they be done safely and securely and, I think unfortunately that means universities bear the cost,” Napolitano said.

However, some on UC-Berkeley’s campus accuse the school of spending millions of dollars to protect events with right-wing provocateurs that bring the possibility of violence to campus while letting budget cuts eat into the the day-to-day business of teaching and learning.

“It’s completely ridiculous,” Wehrheim said. “We need the money to feed our students. My office hasn’t been cleaned in years. I have to bring my own batteries after the middle of the semester if I want a microphone. We need money for basic campus services, not to host militarized outsiders.”