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Violent Incident at UC Berkeley Sparks Free Speech Debate

Hayden Williams was recruiting for Turning Point USA, a conservative group, on University of California (UC) Berkeley’s campus on February 19 when two men approached the recruiting table and began to argue with him. A video taken by a witness shows one of the men repeatedly pushing Williams, and then punching him in the face. The man arrested for the assault is Zachary Greenberg, who is not a UC Berkeley student.

This seemingly isolated incident has since sparked a nationwide uproar. Despite the arrest of Greenberg on March 1, many conservatives feel that campus police’s response was too little, too late, and have expressed their upset about the incident on social media. They believe the assault on Williams is merely another event among many that demonstrates the hostility towards conservative students on university campuses. UC Berkeley has released a statement stating that their “commitment to freedom of expression and belief is unwavering.”

On March 2 at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland, Williams was brought onto the stage by President Trump, who lauded him for his actions. President Trump also stated that he would be signing a new executive order that would make federal research funding for colleges and universities dependent on their support of free speech.

President Trump’s statements, as well as the conservative and liberal reactions to Williams’ assault, has prompted further debate over school campuses’ treatment of conservative students and the nature of interactions between conservatives and progressives.

“Cal’s inefficiency in bringing this crime to justice is both biased and harmful,” says Ava Remler, a senior at Berkeley High School (BHS) who identifies as a Republican. Remler believes that what happened to Williams will dissuade already reluctant conservatives from attending UC Berkeley, especially as she herself has experienced hostility on BHS’s campus, including, perhaps surprisingly, from teachers.

“I’ve found an astonishing amount of teachers who have literally told me I am unable to speak in class because of my opinion[s]. I’ve been called a liar and a bigot by my teachers in front of the class, and have heard a teacher tell my fellow students that they should never engage with people who have opinions like mine,” said Remler. She attributes this attitude to the political homogeneity in Berkeley, and thinks this promotes intolerant cultures.

This is part of the reason why Remler founded Liberty Club, a club that aims to encourage civil political discourse on a range of controversial topics. She hopes that Liberty Club will help teach students the skills they need to engage respectfully with those whose views don’t conform to the status quo.

Merry Parasol, a junior at BHS who identifies as socially progressive and fiscally moderate, agrees that school campuses like UC Berkeley and even BHS can be alienating for conservatives. She thinks that conservatives’ free speech on campus may be restricted by other students, if not by the administration. However, she does not believe any fault lies with UC Berkeley. “I don’t think that [UC Berkeley] itself is restricting free speech in the sense that I don’t think Cal has its own political agenda,” said Parasol.

Parasol believes that much of the animosity between conservative and progressive students is drummed up by the media. “In my opinion … we all have similar underlying beliefs [like] we want fairness, and for people to be happy and safe,” she said. “We just have different ways we think this should be achieved. The media seems to have caused us to think [that] those who don’t agree with us politically have some sort of evil agenda that goes against the core values we believe [in].”

Remler and Parasol both see the incident as an opportunity to draw attention to the political tensions that exist on UC Berkeley’s campus, the BHS campus, as well as other campuses across the country. “If we can’t communicate across the aisle, then any chance at compromise or civility is lost,” said Remler.