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As ‘Free Speech Week’ winds down, a turn to what’s next

Berkeley professor Stan Klein had a revelation during the campus’s so-called “Free Speech Week.” He was standing in line to see the YouTube personality Milo Yiannopoulos on Sunday when he started a conversation with the energetic young Trump supporter next to him.

“You know, it might have been my first time really engaging with someone from the right,” Klein, a professor of neuroscience at the School of Optometry, reflected on Tuesday. “I just got a tremendous education into the arguments of values.”

Klein said he spent hours on Sproul Plaza after Yiannopoulos’s visit talking about climate change and the relevance of facts and, for the first time in a while, thought deeply about the struggles of communicating scientific truths to skeptical audiences.

“We scientists need to get educated on how to talk,” Klein said Tuesday. “Maybe it is impossible; but it is science, it can’t be impossible.”

Across the campus, as Yiannopoulos and other right-wing speakers made highly politicized appearances, students, staff and faculty grappled with issues of discourse, freedom of speech, provocation and their sense of belonging on campus.

Below, in a collection of stories reported over the last few days, a few in Berkeley’s community talk about what they bring away from “Free Speech Week.”

A growing sense of connections, community

Leah Weaver, a senior who is also a member of Berkeley’s American Civil Liberties Union club, spent weeks planning a series of events designed to counter Yiannopoulos’s announced lineup of right-wing speakers.

Weaver worked with a coalition of black students, Muslim students and graduate business students that she said wouldn’t have had reason to connect as deeply as they did without Yiannopoulos. The coalition, she said, is now hoping to plan more events about dialogue and speech on campus, without the distraction of a national figure like Yiannopoulos.

“We’re thinking of one event a day with a (well-known) speaker or a panel, and have conversations around a lot of these issues,” she said on Wednesday. “We would get some representatives from the left, and maybe some people from the right — respectable ones — that people would like to hear.”  “Free Speech Week” raised important issues that could get lost, she said, if everyone decided to just move on.

“It a certain sense it is great that it fell apart, in the sense that the provocateurs didn’t come,” Weaver said. “But for so many, their interest died out when the controversy stopped, (but) these are still issues that they should be paying attention to.”

On the right, hope for understanding

Mike Wright, a senior studying political science, is the editor-in-chief of the Berkeley Patriot, the student group that invited Yiannopoulos, before rescinding his invitation.

Wright, speaking on Sunday, after Yiannopoulous showed for a 15-minute photo-op on Sproul Plaza, said he hoped his fellow students could become more tolerant of conservative beliefs, even if they didn’t agree.

“I saw a shift about five years back where the idea that we can all be together and hear different viewpoints sort of started to change,” he said. “I don’t know if it is a generation or what. I just really wanted to see that ability restored. I love this campus and I want it to be a place where free speech can exist without any caveats.”

Wright said that while he felt somewhat bruised by the experience of inviting Yiannopoulous to campus, he still hoped his fellow students would be open to hearing different viewpoints. Wright didn’t respond to a request to talk again on Wednesday.

Students should “be able to hear from all sorts of different perspectives, even the ones that make you uncomfortable,” he said. “Show up and ask questions, or don’t show up at all. You don’t have to hear from people you don’t want. … If I applied the standard that a lot the students, my peers, apply to what is acceptable to be heard or not, as a conservative I wouldn’t be able to be here on this campus.”

A focus on issues larger than speech

Katrin Wehrheim, a math professor, spent part of Monday with a group of students and staff counter-demonstrators who had organized rallies, speeches and teach-ins.

Wehrheim said they had no patience for arguments that anything happening on campus over the last few days had anything to do with the freedom to talk about contentious opinions.

“It is not about speech; this week was never about speech,” Wehrheim said on Monday. “We can talk about free speech once we’ve dealt with the white supremacist violence on campus. We can talk about speech once our Latina students can walk safely across campus, once our trans students aren’t so on edge that they can’t do their research.

“Once we’ve dealt with that, we can talk about free speech,” Wehrheim said.

Berkeley’s Chancellor Carol Christ has called for a Free Speech Year on campus. You can read her remarks, hear a panel of Berkeley’s experts discuss free speech and see a calendar of future events here.

Contact Will Kane at

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