This post was written by Connor Balough

The Berkeley College Republicans have no problem inviting the nation’s most provocative conservatives to speak on campus — and the more outrageous the better, they say. It’s good for business.

The Republican student group at famously lefty UC Berkeley says regular meeting attendance has roughly tripled from 20 to nearly 60 since Feb. 1. That’s when masked agitators infiltrated peaceful protesters and caused $100,000 of damage on campus — smashing windows and setting police equipment ablaze — to stop Milo Yiannopoulos, the self-described “dangerous faggot,” from giving his pro-Trump, anti-immigration speech. Yiannopoulos, a former columnist for the right-wing Breitbart News site, was escorted off campus for his safety.

Now the Republicans are hosting another columnist and provocateur: Ann Coulter, who labels herself a “mean-spirited, bigoted conservative” (but “a Christian first”).

“It’s only when we invite more provocative speakers that it generates a campus-wide dialogue,” said Naweed Tahmas, 20, of the Berkeley College Republicans, noting that his group also invites mainstream conservatives to their weekly meetings: Republican National Committee leaders Harmeet Dhillon and Shawn Steel, for example.

Hundreds of peaceful student demonstrators made clear their views of that strategy on Feb. 1, when they filled Sproul Plaza carrying signs expressing their opposition: “Hate Speech is not Free Speech.” “Fascist-Free Zone.” And “I Stand for my Muslim Family.”

Pranav Jandhyala, 19, co-founded BridgeCal, a group seeking to bridge the political/ideological divide on campus near student housing on Friday, April 7, 2017 in Berkeley, Calif. Photo: Paul Kuroda, Special To The Chronicle

Photo: Paul Kuroda, Special To The Chronicle

Pranav Jandhyala, 19, co-founded BridgeCal, a group seeking to bridge the political/ideological divide on campus near student housing on Friday, April 7, 2017 in Berkeley, Calif.

The strategy has also prompted a perilous backlash: After supporting Yiannopoulos, Tahmas was one of six in the Republican group whose faces were plastered around campus on a poster titled “Know Your Local Baby Fascists.” A young man in shorts and tank top was filmed destroying the Berkeley College Republicans’ sign. And students who signed a paper expressing interest in the group got harassing emails after someone stole the sheet the day following the Yiannopoulos event.

Republican students say they hope to avoid rioting and retaliation this time by co-hosting Coulter with a new moderate student group, BridgeCal, born from the riot’s ashes and the election year’s ideological war zone.

“BridgeCal seeks to fix the political divide,” said freshman Pranav Jandhyala, 19, who founded the UC Berkeley chapter of the national BridgeUSA after rioters beat him and gave him a concussion as he videoed the Yiannopoulos violence for the Tab, a campus news site. “BridgeCal is a place where political adversaries can discuss issues in an environment that is respectful and solutions-based.”

The concept will soon be tested. Coulter is scheduled to speak about immigration on April 27.

A sampling of her thoughts on that subject:

“Illegal aliens have killed, raped and maimed thousands of Americans — in America,” she opined in a column in 2015. “If you don’t want to be killed, raped or maimed by illegal immigrants in your own country, I have no tips for you. There’s nothing you can do. You’re on your own. Good luck.”

And from a 2013 column: “The problem isn’t just illegal immigration. I would rather have doctors and engineers sneaking into the country illegally than have legally arriving ditch-diggers.”

Coulter has had numerous books on the New York Times best-seller list, including last year’s “In Trump We Trust” (No. 17, four spots below the counterpoint “Trump Revealed”), and her 2006 “Godless,” which spawned rival best-sellers “Soulless” and “Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter.”

All of which leaves college students wrestling with how to deal with the free flow of ideas — and their accompanying emotions — in an era of extremism.

After the collapse of the Yiannopoulos talk, for example, the Berkeley College Republicans declared that “the Free Speech Movement is dead” on campus.

“Ms. Coulter’s visit is a crucial second test of whether or not UC Berkeley really is the home of the Free Speech Movement,” said the Republican group’s Tahmas.

To facilitate that experiment, BridgeCal has invited another speaker on immigration for April 17: Maria Echaveste, former adviser to President Bill Clinton and deputy White House chief of staff.

Echaveste questions whether any serious “campus-wide dialogue” is actually intended around immigration when Coulter and Yiannopoulos are asked to address it. In January, for example, campus administrators felt it necessary to warn students that Yiannopoulos, known for singling out individuals for humiliation, might use his talk to make immigrant students “human targets to serve a political agenda.”

“I don’t believe either of those speakers have a solid grounding in how we develop immigration policies, or the complexities of developing solutions,” said Echaveste, who managed immigration reform in the Clinton administration. A former corporate lawyer and administrator in the U.S. Department of Labor, Echaveste graduated from UC Berkeley School of Law and lectures there now. She is the daughter of Mexican immigrants.

“What people miss in the debate about immigration is, they ignore the human spirit,” she said. “We’ve been migrating since the dawn of time — people worldwide are willing to risk their lives to better themselves and flee war and terror. We’re never going to quench that spirit. But managing it requires lots of intervention.”

Echaveste is speaking for free.

Coulter is charging $20,000. BridgeCal will kick in $3,000 of the fee, while the rest will come from Young Americans for Freedom, part of a national lobbying group that operates a conservative speakers bureau for college campuses. The Berkeley College Republicans expect to pay whatever security fee campus police require.

Despite Coulter’s lack of immigration expertise, Tahmas and Jandhyala say their intention is very much to get students talking with each other in civil tones.

Toward that end, BridgeCal is inviting students who are in the country without documentation to attend Coulter’s talk to “create a dialogue between her and the UC Berkeley community — a community who disagrees with her so vehemently,” Jandhyala said.

Tahmas said: “The invitation is to pose questions to Ann Coulter and challenge her beliefs. We believe this is crucial so we understand each other better.”

One freshman who expects to attend both events asked to be identified by her first name, Kimberly, because she and her family have no immigration papers. They arrived from Mexico when Kimberly was 6.

“Unless you’re Native American, you’re an immigrant. And that’s the reality of it,” said Kimberly, who hasn’t yet decided what question she’ll ask Coulter. But in response to Coulter’s emphasis on violent crimes committed by some in the country illegally, she plans to say that “just because one person does something inappropriate does not mean that you should assume that of everyone in that culture.”

She said she might use her own family as an example, pointing out that they “ran away from a country that will never give us what we deserve as human beings.”

Meanwhile, Tahmas said the biggest disagreement now is between the Republicans and the administration, which wants to push the Coulter talk to a remote property, while the students want it on the main campus.

The Republican group just canceled a talk by another right-wing speaker, David Horowitz, after the campus gave it a 1 p.m. time slot at its Clark Kerr campus 10 blocks away. Sophomore Pieter Sittler, a vice president with the group, told campus officials that the event wasn’t worth the expense because too few students would show up at that time and place.

Conservative bloggers with Heat Street and Breitbart News reported that Horowitz accused the campus of taking “a page out of Orwell,” censoring him.

But Sittler said his group hadn’t given the campus enough time to plan. “The university is understandably trying to avoid another Milo Yiannopoulos fiasco. (And campus police) strongly recommended that the event take place during the day.”

Tahmas said he has agreed to hold the Coulter event at 5 p.m., instead of 7:30 p.m.

Campus spokesman Dan Mogulof said, “This university remains committed to the constitutional guarantee of free speech. But because it’s on campus, the university can’t abdicate its responsibility for safety.”

Evidence of a significant Coulter protest hasn’t yet surfaced. By contrast, weeks before the Yiannopoulos event, UC Berkeley administrators were bombarded with demands to cancel the talk — which the First Amendment prevented them from doing — and warnings of trouble if they did not.

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