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Berkeley Faculty Members Sound Off On Proposed Boycott

September 14, 2017
by Krissy Eliot

On Wednesday afternoon a letter was emailed to all UC Berkeley faculty, encouraging them to boycott all classes and campus activities from September 24th to the 27th—the dates in which Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, and Stephen K. Bannon have been invited by a small, conservative student publication called the Berkeley Patriot to speak on campus.

The document, which as of this writing had been signed by 110 people, including faculty, Ph.D. students, and alumni, calls upon faculty to not only cancel all classes and tell students to stay home, but also advises that all buildings and departments be shut down so that staff need not come to campus during the four-day period. And, if professors and instructors do decide to hold class, the letter suggests that they not penalize any students who “are afraid to come to campus.”

“The Administration, in failing to halt these events, has left concerned faculty with no other choice than to act to prevent further harm to our community,” the letter reads. “We urge you to join us in keeping our students and our campus safe by signing on to this call for a campus-wide-boycott.”

One complication is that said events, according to UC Berkeley administrators, have yet to be officially sanctioned, given that the student groups who have publicly announced that they’ll be hosting Yiannopoulos, Coulter, and Bannon have not gone through proper event protocol.

“Not a single speaker has connected with the campus or our police department to discuss security arrangements, as is required,” campus spokesman Dan Mogulof said in a statement. “Rental fees for venues have not been paid. Contracts with venues have not been signed.”

While the letter acknowledges that the boycott is essentially preemptive, stating that “there has still not been an official announcement from campus administrators” that the events will go as stated in the press, the fact that it could happen is enough for many members of the campus community to believe that people are better off someplace else.

“The best thing to do, instead of having a conflict and having people shouting [speakers] down, is just to say, ‘Sorry, everything is cancelled, go home and ignore these things,’” says George Lakoff, Cal professor of linguistics, who is not yet a signatory to the letter. “If you don’t believe the campus should do this, go home, take the week off.”

Exactly which faculty members drafted the email remains unclear, but Charis Thompson, Chancellor’s Professor in the Gender and Women’s Studies department, says she was among the original group who met to discuss the boycott before the letter was drafted. She says her main reason for supporting the boycott is student safety.

“I’m so keen on the boycott because some people in my class don’t feel safe coming, like my gender and science class. It’s not surprising,” Thompson says. “We’re touching on feminist scholarship, technology, race and religion. So almost every topic that Milo has announced that he’s going to be covering as things to target is part of the scholarly inquiry of my class. It feels targeted as a class.”

The letter says that a boycott will affirm the faculty’s “fundamental responsibility” to protect the safety of the students—and while they understand “that canceling classes might be seen as a penalty to students who want to learn—by holding class when some students CAN NOT attend by virtue of their DACA status and the imminent threat that these campus events hold, faculty who DO hold classes are disadvantaging DACA students and others who will feel threatened by being on campus.”

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is the immigration policy established in 2012 by the Obama administration that has allowed thousands of young undocumented immigrants to remain in the country. Because the policy is currently under fire from the Trump administration—the letter suggests DACA students are in danger during the four-day event because it’s hosted by republican pundits and Trump supporters.

“I’ve been screamed at in the past year just by the virtue of being the Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies … [I’ve been] accused of man-hating and inciting white genocide, and been told that feminists are to be blamed for all of that.”

Thompson says she’ll be holding class online during that period because she says it’s unfair to give “differential access” to the classroom. She doesn’t want to give an advantage to students who aren’t afraid to show up.  

When asked if certain students literally could not come to campus during the four days of what is being billed by campus Republicans as “Free Speech Week,” Thompson said no. The use of “can not attend” in the letter was meant to address students who felt that they couldn’t attend out of fear.

“The threat of DACA, the repeal of DACA, the threat of being identified, of being harassed, the threat of being beaten up,” Thompson says.

Thompson says that not only are students at risk during the event, but also faculty members like herself.

“I’ve been screamed at in the past year just by the virtue of being the Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies,” she says. “[I’ve been] accused of man-hating and inciting white genocide, and been told that feminists are to be blamed for all of that. So there’s a real chill on our capacity to [speak] or think freely at the moment. When we try to say, think and teach freely it’s putting us at quite a bit of risk.”

Thompson also says some students feel like they’ll be particularly targeted on certain days.  During the four-day event, main topics of discussion will include Silicon Valley executives, Muslims, the First Amendment and “Feminism Awareness Day.”

“We’ll have male only speakers,” Yiannopoulos told The San Francisco Chronicle. “We’ll open with a drag queen. Speakers will be telling women what they’ve been doing wrong.”

Yiannopoulos said that Berkeley “likes to make a big deal that it’s the home of free speech. But it’s certainly the opposite of that,” and that he plans to “test that premise.”

Thompson says she’s not interested in suppression of speech, and she encourages discussion around differing viewpoints, but the events to be held at the end of September are concerning in terms of safety.

She proposed alternative measures for hosting highly controversial speech on campus.

“We should have a completely nonpartisan panel that assesses the security costs and also the threat of going on with education,” Thompson says, “And if it reaches critical threshold, the completely nonpartisan panel should move [the event] to the stadium, or the Richmond Field Station, [an offsite campus facility], and have buses take students there.”

“We’ve asked the administration to move these events to another part of the campus and they’ve refused to,” said Jeffrey Skoller, film and media professor at Cal who signed the letter. “So we’re left with no other choice but to cancel classes and organize that among the faculty so the students aren’t penalized for missing classes.”

“Boycotting, this is not our desire,” Skoller adds. “But it’s really our only choice at this point.”

Some faculty have expressed concerns that attempts to limit or curtail the speech on campus are more damaging to the disrupted than the disruptors.

At a campus free speech panel discussion last week, moderated by Cal Chancellor Carol Christ, Berkeley law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky said that by calling attention to provocateurs by trying to keep them from speaking,  protestors were playing into their hands

“What Milo and Coulter most want is being kept from speaking on campus,” Chemerinsky says. “If you restrict [speech], you make martyrs of those you’re silencing.”

But Lakoff, who is off work the week of the four-day event, said that if he were teaching on campus during those days he would sign the letter. “And in fact, I may still.”

For Thompson, the bottom line regarding the drafting of the letter is that “free speech is good and exchanges of ideas are great,” but intimidation “of people who already disproportionately don’t benefit from the goods of society is totally counterproductive to the Constitution.”

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