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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.
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