Tips for Refining Your Campus’ Controversial Speaker Policy

UC Berkeley Police Chief Margo Bennett shares valuable lessons learned from hosting controversial speakers and subsequent protests and demonstrations.

Tips for Refining Your Campus’ Controversial Speaker Policy

For several years now, controversial speakers and subsequent protests on college campuses have forced school officials to try to strike a balance between keeping students safe while not infringing on free speech. Arguably, the University of California at Berkeley has been the campus most at the forefront of the discussion.

Between Aug. 2017 and Sept. 2017, UC Berkeley spent nearly $4 million on security for three events that hosted controversial speakers. The decision to ramp up security for politically charged events came after Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing political commentator and public speaker, was scheduled to host an event on campus in February 2017.

The event was ultimately canceled as rioters set fires and smashed windows prior to the scheduled speech, causing over $100,000 in damage to the campus. Yiannopoulous was invited back to the campus in September 2018. That event was also canceled but cost the school $2,883,434 in added security.

While the campus took a giant blow with these expenses, UC Berkeley Police Chief Margot Bennett says the silver lining is the expertise gained by the department.

View this article’s slideshow to see some security measures UC Berkeley put in place for these events

Bennett spoke at this summer’s Campus Safety Online Summit about the valuable lessons her department learned from these high-profile protests and demonstrations on campus and the subsequent policies that were developed for similar future events.

“The difference between us and let’s say Stanford is that we’re a public institution. Stanford has tighter control over what happens on their campus. As a public institution, we have the opportunity to act as a location for outside individuals to come in the space to deliver a message,” said Bennett. “We had already established our student policies. We now had to develop a policy that satisfies our constitutional obligation to maintain and protect free speech for all individuals, as well as protect our physical assets and more importantly our human resources — our students, faculty and staff.”

The campus needed a policy that very clearly identified time, place and restrictions for these events. It also had to remain content-neutral — every event had to be handled in the same manner, no matter the speaker’s viewpoint.

The ‘Backbone’ of UC Berkeley’s Controversial Speaker Policy

While there were many moving parts when it came to establishing the new policy, there are several aspects of the policy that Bennett describes as its “backbone.” First was reviewing event requests and training staff on the process. Campus leadership now has the opportunity to deny requests or control some of the things that individuals who are wanting to host an event would follow in order for the campus to maintain a fair and balanced decision-making process.

“We had to make sure that we had an opportunity in that policy to develop a prompt appeal so that a high-level administrator could act on denials that campus leadership had issued when it comes to campus safety and the way an event was going to occur,” said Bennett.

Staff members who might have to review event requests also had to be trained on the process as well.

“For example, facilities managers throughout campus had to be trained because they have individual control over who is able to use their property and how they must act within the use of that property,” added Bennett.

Under the new policy, the campus entity hosting the outside speaker is responsible for all planning requirements. When Yiannopoulos was scheduled to appear on campus back in February 2017, responsibilities were placed with the Berkeley College Republicans, the student group that was hosting Yiannopoulos and organizing the event.

“We wanted to remove our contact with the person who was invited to speak. In other words, we didn’t want to be speaking directly with Milo’s security people,” said Bennett. “We wanted to be talking to our student group and have them accept and bear the responsibility for all the requirements for planning.”

Bennett emphasized the importance of making sure the host also understands the needs of the speaker and communicates those to the police department and other security personnel.

Finally, the policy ties deadlines to legitimate operational requirements. In the school’s first vetting of the policy, the police department established that it needed eight weeks’ lead time in order to do a thorough logistical assessment of the location and determine what kind of security requirements would be needed.

Bennett’s advice, though, is to be nimble in making the policy fit for your specific campus environment.

“Our students came back and said, ‘Eight weeks it too big of hardship, can you reduce that?'” she said. “We looked at the way we do business and some tweaks that can be made and said, ‘Okay, we can reduce it to six weeks,’ and we’ve been able to maintain it pretty well.”

For campuses considering or in the process of creating a similar event policy, Bennett also offered advice for questions to consider regarding safety and security, including:

  • Will you need to close buildings? If so, where will displaced groups go?
  • Does your state allow guns on campus?
  • Will you establish a perimeter? If you do, what’s the purpose of the perimeter? What’s it going to be made out of?
  • How will you set up safe passage across campus? Have you considered safe walking routes for people who are triggered by the large presence of law enforcement?
  • Where are you going to take high ground?
  • Have you established a prohibited items list?
  • Will drones be used?
  • Have you established MOUs with outside agencies?
  • What’s going to happen if the event is canceled?

For more information on changes implemented by UC Berkeley, including how the campus addressed the security concerns mentioned in the above list, watch Chief Bennett’s full session on-demand for free.

Campus Safety also has a free download for university police chiefs, security directors, emergency managers and high-level administrators on managing controversial speakers.

About the Author


Amy is Campus Safety’s Senior Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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