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Free speech v. Ann Coulter

UC Berkeley has canceled Ann Coulter’s speech, citing security concerns but she has vowed to give it anyway. (April 20, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

Ann Coulter is the equivalent of a "shock jock," a larger-than-life personality who is deliberately offensive and provocative and who taunts, goads, mocks and generally acts like a PG-13-rated Howard Stern. That she claims to eschew liberalism and promote politically conservative views is almost immaterial — she's much more about put-downs than policy, the height of a Coulter screed seldom being a reasoned defense of the gold standard but more likely why one should "Never trust a liberal over 3," as her 2013 book was titled.

Given that her gift is to raise blood pressure rather than enlighten, it should come as no surprise that Ms. Coulter has happily found herself in the middle of a highly-charged controversy at the University of California, Berkeley that has generated more heat than illumination. Originally invited to speak on campus by a student Republican group, school officials canceled her speech but then offered to reschedule — to a time and place where security could be maintained and Berkeley might avoid a repeat of the Milo Yiannopoulos episode several months ago in which the appearance of the odious alt-right, pedophilia-defending blogger had precipitated a riot that injured six and caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

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Naturally, Ms. Coulter would have none of that, and so she may or may not be speaking on or near campus this week. Meanwhile, there's a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco charging Berkeley with failing to live up to its institutional promise to its students to have "free debate and free exchange of ideas." Berkeley officials say they're merely looking out for the welfare of their students and are perfectly willing to host Ms. Coulter but only with the appropriate precautions.

As First Amendment debates go, this isn't much of one. Berkeley's offer is not unreasonable. If Ms. Coulter has a scheduling conflict, as she claims, then perhaps a mutually-acceptable date can be found at a later time. That doesn't mean the school must allow the threat of criminal behavior (like the 150 masked agitators who stormed the Yiannopoulos event and threw fireworks and rocks at police) to dictate its policies, but one can hardly blame Berkeley administrators for wanting to take precautions. Just ask all those parents of undergraduates who might be expecting the school to ensure their sons and daughters come home for the summer break without third degree burns from a close encounter with a Molotov cocktail.

Yet what Ms. Coulter has done successfully is expose a troubling pattern of behavior at many institutions of higher learning where speakers promoting politically conservative beliefs are being ignored, shouted down or shunned. Admittedly, the views involved are often extreme. Ms. Coulter, for example, has endorsed literacy tests and poll taxes, favored a foreign policy of invading countries, killing their leaders and converting the populace to Christianity and routinely describes liberals as "traitors or idiots." But the First Amendment protects the foolish the same as it protects the wise. If college campuses can't listen to such blather and then politely explain to the speaker why she's full of it, what hope is there for the rest of society?

Tolerance has to be a two-way street. We can't merely tolerate the sympathetic, we ought to be able to listen to those with whom we strongly disagree — short the kind of Supreme Court-approved exceptions like "fighting words" or "yelling fire in a crowded theater" where lives are directly endangered. There's a burden on universities to be centers of free thinking and new ideas without having speakers "shut down." The idea that protesters can prevent that open-mindedness from happening represents a real loss for the next generation. If Ms. Coulter can be shunned, what about academics who have held ideas that were once unpopular? Would the next Galileo be listened to or imprisoned?

We have heard the justifications — that it's not responsible to give a platform for hate speech. But just who gets to decide where the lines are drawn? Better to listen first, react later. Left-wing speakers can just as easily be run off campus, too — and have been in some cases. (Commencement speakers are in a different category in this respect — to be invited to speak at graduation can be interpreted as an institutional endorsement, and attendance for those who want to culminate their academic achievements isn't optional.) As insufferable as Ms. Coulter can be, it's better that she speak at the appropriate time and place and students be allowed to protest in a civil manner. Both represent free speech and both advance the cause of academic freedom and constitutional rights. Schools survived the Vietnam War, they can survive one self-promoting provocateur.

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