Updated 11:00 p.m. ET
Competing demonstrations in support of and against conservative commentator Ann Coulter’s controversial speech, which had been planned for Thursday at the University of California, Berkeley, were held amid a heavy police presence. Despite some shouting and harsh words, both groups were peaceful.
Coulter’s planned appearance had been canceled Wednesday after school officials said they wouldn’t be able to adequately secure the site and sponsors pulled out.
But even without the conservative commentator’s event, the university and the city of Berkeley had braced for dueling protests that they feared could become violent.
“While we cherish our freedoms of speech and assembly, there is no freedom to silence others or to commit violence,” University Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin said in a joint statement. “If you are at a demonstration and you see violence, separate yourself.”
Helicopters circled over Berkeley and city and campus police put on a significant show of force on Thursday, according to local media reports.
Campus police had arrested two people as of 1 p.m. local time, Berkeley said on Twitter. It said “both individuals’ affiliation to UC Berkeley is unknown at this time,” and did not elaborate about the reasons for the arrests.
The police said they were limiting access to one of the university’s main plazas and searching individuals for “restricted items” such as “weapons (real and simulated), improvised weapons, tasers, hard plastic/metal/bottles, chains, banners/signs, explosive and incendiary devices.”
NPR’s Richard Gonzales was at Berkeley today, and described a large demonstration near campus around noon by protesters who “say they wanted to stage this rally to underscore their objection to Ann Coulter’s appearance on the campus even though she says she’s not going to come.”
Right-wing demonstrations in support of Coulter gathered in the afternoon and pictures posted by the news site Berkeleyside show protesters gathered at a nearby park.
Further adding to the tension earlier in the day, Coulter suggested in an email to The Associated Press that she still might appear on campus.
“I’m not speaking. But I’m going to be near there, so I might swing by to say hello to my supporters who have flown in from all around the country,” Coulter said, according to the wire service. “I thought I might stroll around the graveyard of the First Amendment.”
But Coulter never showed up.
This has been a lengthy saga. Before Wednesday’s cancellation, the university previously canceled the speech over security concerns, then reinstated it for a different day and place.
Coulter blamed the university for the final cancellation, and said on The Sean Hannity Show Wednesday evening that there was “nothing I could do.” Several sponsoring groups pulled out because of the security concerns.
Coulter added: “All of the people who should have been standing up for the First Amendment here, all ran away with their tails between their legs.”
The university said it “had done everything in its power to protect Coulter’s First Amendment rights while also ensuring the safety of the campus community,” campus officials told reporters yesterday.
They said they were not consulted about the date of the talk, and when they explained they were unable to provide a secure venue, Coulter rejected alternative dates.
“You can’t exercise your First Amendment rights if it’s taking place in an event that gets shut down because the venue isn’t protectable,” said Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor for public affairs.
Berkeley is one of the country’s most liberal universities. Coulter is opposed to immigration and was planning to speak about the issue. Her latest book is titled Adios America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole.
Berkeley has seen three major incidents of political violence recently, as The Two-Way reported:
“On March 4 and April 15, left and right wing protestors skirmished in a nearby Berkeley park. In February, masked agitators, commonly known as Black Bloc, broke windows and set fires at the campus building preventing right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking.”
Wednesday’s cancellation prompted criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union.
“For the future of our democracy, we must protect bigoted speech from government censorship,” said David Cole, the ACLU’s national legal director. “On college campuses, that means that the best way to combat hateful speech is through counter-speech, vigorous and creative protest, and debate, not threats of violence or censorship.”