Updated – March 28, 2019 – Hosting controversial speakers on campus is likely to remain a difficult question for college and university safety managers. While it’s important to encourage free speech and to allow campus communities to express their constitutional rights, some recent events have shown that these events can come at a physical cost.
In February, 2017, a scheduled event with controversial far right-wing speaker Milo Yiannapoulos at UC Berkeley was met with protests. Students who objected to the commentators extreme and divisive positions took to the streets to make their voices heard, but the event also drew almost 150 members of the anarchist group known as the “Black Bloc”. The agitators had a presence in the Oakland area for years, and tore down metal barriers, set fires near the campus bookstore, and damaged the construction site of a new dorm. The university canceled the engagement hours before it was slated to occur, and escorted the alt-right speaker off campus amid violence, property damage, and major public safety concerns.
UC Berkeley accrued over $100,000 dollar in damage following the Milo Yiannapoulos protests, posing serious questions about the cost of hosting controversial speakers on campus. In the months following the chaos, the school continued to wrestle with the question of whether or not these speakers should be banned as purveyors hate speech or allowed on campus to promote free speech. However, bringing controversial speakers to campus is a costly proposition for campuses either way, and safety officials have a responsibility to make sure their school puts together an appropriate emergency safety plan and accounts for financial costs of hosting such an event.
Yiannapoulos was an editor of the far-right publication Breitbart and holds incendiary views, once stating “feminism is cancer” and encouraging fans to bombard SNL cast member Leslie Jones with racist hatred online. He’s just one of the controversial, far-right conservative voices who entered the public eye during the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. There are similar voices, such as Ann Coulter, Tomi Lahren, Charles Murray, or Ben Shapiro, and their speaking engagements have drawn similar reactions and controversy.
The Risks Of Hosting Controversial Speakers on Campus
Speaking engagements with controversial speakers can cause extreme tension on campus. For one, certain leaders tend to bring followers to campus and these people often arrive with the intention of intimidating and bullying students from marginalized communities. During an event at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Yiannapoulos projected a picture of a transgender student who had filed a complaint with the school onto the wall and harassed the student with slurs and other degrading statements. In an interview with Broadly, the student described the incident as an attack. “I think verbal assault should be called verbal assault,” she told the publication. “[verbal assault] doesn’t add anything constructive to speech; verbal assault is damaging and leads people to suicide.”
In a similar report, a transgender student at UC Davis told CNN that they felt too unsafe to stay on campus during a Yiannapoulos event and feared the lasting effect the engagement could have on the campus community. “The fear is with the folks who are gonna see him,” she told the news outlet. “He leaves. But the folks who are attending his event are the folks that I have to sit next to in classrooms.”
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 policy decrees that federally funded universities and colleges are not allowed to discriminate against students in programs or activities based on gender. This includes keeping students safe from physical assault and harassment. The issue is complicated – it’s a matter of deciding when free speech crosses over to harassment, and that line is disputed by commentators on both sides of the political spectrum.
Addressing Student Safety Concerns Amid Controversial Events
There are ways that schools can bolster support and safety measures, should a student feel unsafe during an event of this nature. Providing a direct line of communication between students and campus safety officials is essential, as is providing support resources. Leading up to the event, make sure the student body has the appropriate information regarding campus police and local law enforcement, student diversity organizations, counseling and support teams.
The events can also draw non-violent and violent protests, and the campus should be prepared to manage a big crowd. During Yiannapoulos’ visit to UC Berkeley, over 1500 people flooded the campus grounds in protest, and while many of these were students or locals protesting the event peacefully, the Oakland based group the “Black Bloc” incited chaos amid the issues. Anti-fascism groups whose ideology calls for the destruction of property to promote their cause can pose a variety of safety risks. In the past, these protesters have been known to launch fireworks and molotov cocktails, hurl rocks, use pepper-spray, and most often smash windows.
Campus safety officials should be ready to diffuse these situations. The response at UC Berkeley was swift, with law enforcement urging protesters to disperse and other students to avoid the scene. They also issued a lockdown for campus buildings. Two student Republicans were attacked while giving an interview, but the campus police detained the assailants and no permanent injuries were sustained. Luckily, the police were able to disperse the crowds and protesters from off-campus moved downtown, and no further arrests were made.
There seem to be two major concerns when a controversial speaker schedules an event on campus. The first is issues of harassment and students from marginalized communities, especially those put under fire by alt-right speakers, feeling unsafe. If a student group or organization on campus organizes an event and a college decides to move forward, systems should be in place to address the issues and concerns raised by students who feel targeted by the speaker’s presence on campus.
The second issue is managing protests, which can draw large crowds of people and result in chaos. These protests can draw many people from off-campus and groups unaffiliated with the college or university. Campus safety teams should consider the potential challenges protests and counter-protests pose for student and faculty safety, and plan accordingly. Investing in a crowd management strategy is one way that college and university campus safety teams can save money for the tool.
Leveraging Technology To Improve Student Safety
There are many resources available to campus officials looking to increase security and safety if a university or college is hosting a controversial speaker. Crowd-management tools are essential, and crowd dividers can keep protesters and counter-protesters from clashing. In August, 2017, thousands of counter-protestors marched in Boston in response to a free speech rally organized by groups with white nationalist ties. The rally and march occurred not long after the violent clashes in Charlottesville, VA, which resulted in the tragic death of Heather Hayer, a 32-year old protester.
In order to manage resident safety, law enforcement officials in Boston took a proactive approach and deployed 500 officers and used crowd control barriers to keep those attending the rally separate from the people protesting it. Ahead of the rally, additional security cameras were set up on the Boston Common and anything that could be used as a weapon including containers, bats, or sticks were banned. Even with 40,000 people marching through the streets, confrontations and arrests were minimal. If colleges and universities take initiative ahead of the speaker’s arrival on campus, they can better protect students and minimize damage to the school’s facilities.
Technology can also play a major role in school safety efforts, as well. An emergency notification systemor ENS is essential for communicating with students and faculty during these difficult periods on campus. The ENS has a variety of functionalities that are useful for planning for a crowds and disruptions on campus. It allows instantaneous communication in case of an emergency, should a protest turn violent or a lockdown occur. These messages can be communicated via social media, but an ENS ensures that all students are informed and can look out for there safety. It also allows a means to communicate valuable resources and information to students who may have concerns about their security during the event.
SMS Opt-In for higher education lets members of the campus community and visitors to opt-in to emergency alerts. Colleges and universities select a keyword to that lets members of the community opt-in to emergency alerts. It’s a way to keep everyone informed, especially should am emergency situation occur, students and locals will know what to do to get to safety and minimize the damage.