Illustration by Kiran Aranha
On Friday, September 14, Northern California Judge Claudia Wilken dismissed a $23 million lawsuit against the city of Berkeley and others regarding Milo Yiannopoulos’ visit and the protests surrounding it. Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing political commentator, eventually came to UC Berkeley in September of 2017, during the university’s Free Speech Week. The Berkeley Patriot, a conservative student group, invited Yiannopoulos and other speakers in February, but violent protesting led to the cancellation of the event. At one of these protests, Kiara Robles, a 26-year-old Oakland resident, was being interviewed by KGO-TV when she was pepper sprayed by a demonstrator. Following this incident, Robles filed a lawsuit against UC Berkeley, the Board of Regents, the City of Berkeley, and others.
In this lawsuit, Robles claimed that her and other Yiannopoulos supporters were being harassed, and targeted, and the UC Police Department (UCPD) and Berkeley Police Department (BPD) did not step in quickly enough, which she felt violated her First Amendment rights. According to the United States District Court, she said, “Officers from UCPD and BPD could see the attacks, yet they did not act to protect any of the victims … because these attendees represented political beliefs that went against their own radical, leftist belief.”
Andrea Prichett, a Berkeley teacher and founder of Copwatch believes that “you can’t sue the police for what they fail to do – only what they actually do.” Judge Wilken dismissed this accusation on the grounds that it was unlikely that police protection were withheld, and that her allegations were not based on enough factual evidence. Robles also filed claims against individuals, such as was Raha Mirabdal, an alleged member of Antifa, an anti-fascist movement. Mirabdal shined a flashlight in Robles and others’ faces to call them out so that others could physically assault them. Judge Wilken also rejected this claim because in order for Mirabdal’s actions to constitute battery, there would need to be a lasting injury. Robles will not comment on the judge’s decision for now.
At the protest, members of leftist groups Antifa and By Any Means Necessary turned a peaceful student gathering violent as they set fires, damaged property, and called out the supporters of the conservative speakers. Robles said, “To describe liberal protesters rioting against a liberal university, [she] can only describe that as mob chaos and mass confusion.” She decided to sue because “a lawsuit is a civil way to respond to injustice.” She added that instead of fighting in the streets, more people should take issues to the courts.
While Berkeley has a reputation as the birthplace of the free speech movement, many have diverging opinions on what crosses the line from free speech from hate speech. “In America it’s your right to be offensive, just as much as it’s your right to be offended,” said Robles. She proposes “listening to the people you disagree with” as a way to remedy our divided country. Conversely, Prichett said, “The words of people who seek to do harm to others must be confronted by the community.” Hosting speakers like Yiannopolous, in her opinion, is “normalizing fascism and making it seem like just another political belief.”