UC Berkeley has always been entangled with national public debate. The students are vocal. The school is birthed in what is considered to be the most liberal city in California. Roqua Montez is the Executive Director of Communications and Media Relations at UC Berkeley. How is Montez expected to recruit empowered and driven students to a school that has recently had such negative connotation in the news?
It’s an interesting concept. The topics of Freedom of speech and its sub-topic, Journalism, has come under fire recently. So if journalism is a matter of freedom of speech, where do boundaries lie?
UC Berkeley is known for its freedom of speech movements and opinions. Known mainly as a liberal school, there are still conservatives in attendance. But this week we learned, they have a voice at the school too. On Wednesday, the school had to make the difficult decisions of canceling a guest speaker event from the right-wing righter, Milo Yiannopoulos. While Yiannopoulos was invited to speak by the Berkeley College Republican Group, the democratic views of the other students sparked a huge riot that included vandalism, fires, and of course, ninja outfits.
The New York Times describes the atmosphere of the school in a recent article about the controversial riot, “Protest has been synonymous with the University of California, Berkeley, from the earliest days of the free speech movement, when students fought to expand political expression on campus beginning in 1964.”
Shortly after the riot ended and the speaker’s event was canceled, the Berkeley College Republican Group posted on social media saying, “Freedom of Speech is Dead.”
As a PR professional, your skills are desperately needed when your client posts such a controversial ultimatum on the internet. What do you do? How do you recruit future students to a school that brags about being vocal and passionate?
This post from the Republican Group went so viral that President Trump tweeted a threat to the school shortly after.
So let’s rewind for a second. Did the university see this coming? Well, in a letter to campus, Chancellor Nickolas Dirks said…
“The concerns around the upcoming visit of a controversial speaker to campus make it necessary for us to reaffirm our collective commitment to two fundamental principles for our campus. The first of these principles is the right to free expression, enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and reflected in some of the most important moments of Berkeley’s history. The second of these principles has to do with our values of tolerance, inclusion and diversity – values which we believe are essential to making this university, and indeed any university, a site of open inquiry and learning.”
This letter was released days before the event and riot took place. The University attempted to remind students of the full concept of Freedom of Speech, but it didn’t ease the minds of the more liberal students on campus.
I personally believe that if the university truly wants to practice this form of open conversation and inquiry with freedom of speech, it would be a good idea to invite a speaker from the left as well. On individual described the rioting event to the NYT as a potential learning experience for students. But I also think the university could learn from this experience. I think it would be smart for the school to consider events that include discussions from both sides of the debate; at least if the Chancellor means what he says about “open inquiry and learning.”
By setting an example for how open communication should take place over these next four years, the office of communication and media relations may have a less stressful and difficult time dealing with the press after events like Wednesday. But for now, Roqua Montez and communication team have their work cut out for them.