Free Speech Concerns Persist at Berkeley

A few weeks after the University of California Berkeley Republicans invited Ann Coulter to address the student body, university officials rescinded the invitation amid predictions that her appearance would spur violent protests. With even the subject of her proposed speech yet unknown, Coulter has emerged as a symbol of free speech for pundits on both sides of the political aisle. Senator Bernie Sanders, for instance, has admonished partisan individuals violently opposed to her presence at Berkeley. Senator Elizabeth Warren, for her part, has argued that groups protesting Coulter should “let her speak.” Conservative firebrands have been more pointed in their critiques of protesters. Todd Starnes, a reporter for Fox News, has likened Coulter to “red meat” being “thrown to a pack of liberal jackets.” Even the ACLU, a group that opposes Coulter’s position on almost every policy issue, tweeted that events surrounding Coulter’s cancellation represent “a loss to First Amendment rights.” Although violent protests have plagued a number of universities hosting conservative speakers this year, the drama at Berkeley is particularly striking given the university’s history as a haven for free speech.

Berkeley emerged at the epicenter of the Free Speech Movement and popularized marches and demonstrations across college campuses during the 1960s. This history is not lost on conservatives angered by the protests surrounding Ann Coulter’s announced appearance at the school. Some argue that, in regard to free speech, liberals hold a double standard. The argument maintains that liberals are willing to protect the speech of speakers with whom they agree politically and silence anyone with alternate views. Ben Domenech, the publisher of the conservative website “The Federalist,” has proclaimed, “speech has become something [liberals] could not only object to but needed to be stamped out.” This view rings true as violence in response to conservative speakers has played out on campuses across the U.S. For instance, at Middlebury College, a crowd attacked and sent political scientist Charles Murray to the hospital. In addition, a Manhattan Institute scholar who has defended current police tactics was “mobbed” at Claremont McKenna.  

The anger and frustration that liberal students feel at the appearance of conservative figures is understandable. Colleges that invite particularly controversial speakers to campus seem to legitimize their views. An attempt to silence incendiary speakers, however, only elevates them. Facing threats to her safety, Ann Coulter becomes a figure of sympathy. Media coverage surrounding her speech, as a result, becomes less critical. The narrative focuses on the faulty organizing tactics of liberals at the expense of bringing to the forefront Coulter’s offensive political positions. The silencing of Coulter represents a fundamental misdirection of liberal goals to create a more open and accepting society. Coulter channels the political beliefs of a wide segment of the American populace. If liberals wish to change the political climate, they must first acknowledge and engage with ideas that may be contrary to their values. President Trump reached the Executive office precisely because he gave voice to Americans who felt the mainstream media and establishment politicians ignored their concerns. According to Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton,  “the narrative assumes a cultural plot against the free expression of right-wing views in which academe, mainstream media—every facet of the establishment—is organized against them.” Ultimately, by acquiescing to the demands of protesters, Berkeley played into the right’s narrative.

Disagreement, voiced through peaceful means such as debate and protest, sustains our democracy. Some liberals’ inability to tolerate differing and offensive viewpoints without resorting to violence represents a troubling political development. Violence, by further fanning the flames of partisan divisions, reflects a breakdown of efficacy in government. If we cannot respectful voice disagreement, then we undermine the sense of mutuality that binds citizens to their government. Referencing the threats levied against Ann Coulter, Senator Elizabeth Warren advised liberals to make their views known through channels more powerful than violence. In an interview with Jake Tapper, Warren noted that if protesters “don’t like [Coulter], don’t show up [to her speech].” By denying Coulter an audience, and therefore an opportunity for media coverage, college students would set the tone for the political climate they wish to see on the national level.

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