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Berkeley Forum Statement on Commitment to
Free Expression

The following statement is from Berkeley Forum President Pierre Bourbonnais.

BERKELEY, California―May 6, 2014―Yesterday night, a Berkeley Forum event featuring UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele was prematurely brought to an end after repeated disruptions by a vocal subset of the audience.

Even before the chancellor and provost had a chance to deliver their opening remarks, audience members began to chant and shout at our guests. Rather than immediately escort the protesters out of the hall, we waited for the demonstrations to wane before proceeding with the event as scheduled.

This proved to be difficult. While we were able to follow through with the speakers’ opening remarks, nearly every statement by the chancellor and provost was greeted by heckling from some members of the audience. Moreover, while transitioning to the moderated portion of the event, a group of protesters marched to the front of the venue and assembled directly in front of the stage, where they remained for the rest of the event. While this type of behavior would be considered unacceptable at any event, we decided against ejecting these individuals out of concern that doing so would have escalated the situation.

Continual outbursts by audience members prevented the speakers from addressing moderator and audience questions. At this point, attendees were warned that the event would be ended if the disruptions continued. In an unprecedented concession, we offered to extend the audience question and answer so long as all members of the audience remained respectful of the event format. While we were able to proceed uninterrupted for a few minutes, it was not long before audience members again started shouting out. Because the integrity of the event had been so thoroughly undermined and no productive discussion could take place, we had no choice but to shut down the event early and escort Chancellor Dirks and Provost Steele out of the venue. Audience members, many of whom had been looking forward to hearing the chancellor and provost answer difficult questions on such topics as campus climate and accessibility, were divested of this rare opportunity.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental value of the university, which exists to engage and challenge students through the competition of ideas. The Berkeley Forum was founded to provide our community the opportunity to share and challenge important, and often provocative, issues. We are saddened that this discussion had to be cut short due to certain activists’ aim of silencing others rather than engaging in productive debate. This type of censorship has no place at the modern university. That this would happen at Berkeley, which just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking Free Speech Movement in December, is particularly disheartening.

This is not the first time that one of our speakers has been forced to step down. It happened last session when a group of protesters stormed our Peter Thiel event, effectively chasing him off stage. But while we can expect more instances of outspokenness at future Forum events, it is our foremost obligation, moving forward, to guarantee a safe environment for both our audience and guests. Therefore, we are working to identify members of the audience who took it upon themselves to silence our speakers’ speech. Many of these individuals have already been identified and will be banned from all future Forum events, as will any other individuals we identify. The Berkeley Forum’s mission of providing quality, free-flowing programming for all of its attendees leaves no room for wilful disturbances.

The Berkeley Forum is an entirely student-run organization whose events are free to UC Berkeley campus members. Our organization holds no political viewpoints of its own and regularly hosts speakers from across the political spectrum. Every aspect of Forum events, from inviting the speakers to securing venues to moderating speaker discussions, is carried out by our student members. That a subset of UC Berkeley students would choose to squash over two months of their peers’ work is both repugnant and indefensible.

From its founding just over two years ago, the Berkeley Forum has grown at an astonishing pace — in spite of barebones funding, paltry support from the university and ASUC, and outrageous disturbances like yesterday’s. So while we are embarrassed by the events of last night, we remain undeterred and are more motivated than ever to protect and expand the important work that is engaging the Berkeley community through meaningful, civil dialogue. The Berkeley Forum has worked hard this past year to attract a diverse and distinguished line-up of thoughtful and at times controversial speakers. It will and must continue to do so uninterrupted.

About the Berkeley Forum
The Berkeley Forum is a non-partisan, student-run organization at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 2012, the Forum organizes panels, debates, and talks by leading experts from a wide variety of fields.

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