Update on Mar. 20: Following the violent protest on Feb. 26 that led to the cancellation of this lecture, the event was rescheduled for Mar. 19 and Ran Bar-Yoshafat, deputy director of an Israeli think tank, spoke with minimal incident. Jonathan Friedman, Sy Syms Managing Director, U.S. Free Expression Programs, said: “We are happy to see that this event was able to take place safely and that the university stepped up their efforts to keep campus open for a variety of viewpoints.”

(NEW YORK) – PEN America today condemned protests at the University of California-Berkeley  earlier this week that turned violent, included antisemitic slurs and gestures, and led to the cancellation of a planned lecture with Ran Bar-Yoshafat, deputy director of the Kohelet Policy Forum, an Israeli think tank. 

“The violent protests and reports of antisemitic bigotry that led to the event cancellation are abhorrent,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America. “No student should have their physical safety jeopardized for attending a public event on campus. While protest of any speaker is within students’ rights, violence, threats, and harassment are never appropriate. These protesters crossed the line — violating the rights of other students who organized the event and came to listen.”

The lecture had been organized by multiple Jewish student organizations. Despite efforts by the University to safeguard the event, even moving it to a second location, it was ultimately canceled for safety reasons, in response to escalating violence. According to reports, about 200 protesters gathered outside the event venue on campus, before forcing their entry inside, smashing two windows and a door. Students who had come to attend the lecture have reported being physically assaulted, spit at, and injured, and that some protesters taunted them with antisemitic slurs. In response, the university has opened a formal criminal investigation and has initiated its student code-of-conduct process. An official statement from the University Chancellor and Provost said the attack on the event and the building constituted “an attack on the fundamental values of the university.”

“University campuses must be a place for dialogue, even when there are deep disagreements,” Friedman continued. “This is a heckler’s veto taken to the extreme. We applaud Berkeley’s efforts to try to have the event go forward despite the planned disruption, to reach out to the affected students, and to investigate and enforce their policies in the aftermath. They should pursue appropriate accountability for those found responsible for the violence, threats, antisemitic slurs, and damaged property, as part of the investigation underway. While campuses must ensure that the fullest breadth of protected political speech can be heard, they must be able to take assertive steps so that events like this can be held safely.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], (201) 247-5057