Free speech has been a hallmark principle of the American republic since its founding. The animating freedom has breathed life into the public forum and has given our nation dynamism — if not extended periods of political and ideological friction.
Enter Ann Coulter. A political firebrand by occupation, the brazen blonde towers over her adversaries with a poison pen and a verbal hand grenade, equally willing to slash her opponents with a gasp-inducing witticism or explode the bounds of political correctness with sheer hubris.
While Coulter is no Socrates, she does play the role of the gadfly. It is thus an alarm bell that the typically fearless and equally reviled felt compelled to cancel an event at the University of California, Berkeley. This is what Coulter said after the cancellation:
“Free Speech” at UC Berkeley, as activists at the university have come to characterize it, has a long history. In 1964, radicals at the university, led by Mario Savio, led a rebellion heralded as the Free Speech Movement. As Savio wrote:
The First Amendment exists to protect consequential speech; First Amendment rights to advocacy come into question only when actions advocated are sufficiently limited in scope, and sufficiently threatening to the established powers. The action must be radical and possible: picket lines, boycotts, sit-ins, rent strikes. The Free Speech Movement demanded no more — nor less — than full First Amendment rights of advocacy on campus as well as off: that, therefore, only the courts have power to determine and punish abuses of freedom of speech. The Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate endorsed this position on December 8, 1964 by declaring against all University regulation of the content of speech or advocacy — by a vote of 824 to 115.
It was a touchstone for the American experience and spurred activism throughout universities across the country. It was not without its critics. Ayn Rand, for example, wrote:
“The [Berkeley] student rebellion is an eloquent demonstration of the fact when men abandon reason, they open the door to physical force as the only alternative and the inevitable consequence.”
Thus, it is with the sense of creeping dread that news of Berkeley's hostile reception of the conservative pundit has made its way into the front pages of the national press. The Young America's Foundation and the Berkeley College Republicans sponsored the event as an alternative to the university's left-leaning speakers.
The Coulter clash follows upon the cancellation of speeches by other prominent conservatives — namely, that of Milo Yiannopoulos in February, which followed student protests. YAF and BCR filed a lawsuit against the university, as The Hill reported on Monday.
The university's shameful reaction has provided a litmus test: does the American press stand for the fundamental right to free expression that is its lifeblood? Or is “free speech” merely a shield to hide behind to advance ideological causes hostile to the nation's bedrock principles and otherwise utterly dispensable if not in the service of the organized left's agenda?
The battle lines have been drawn. Berkeley's detractors — step forward.
Coulter has received no less of a defender than the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU — collectively, no fan of Coulter's ideological stances — released the following statement:
The Young America’s Foundation also rebuked the university and its students for the intellectual atmosphere. On Thursday, it released a statement:
“Berkeley made it impossible to hold a lecture due to the lack of assurances for protections from foreseeable violence from unrestrained leftist agitators.”
Young America’s Foundation is at odds with Coulter's characterization of the event cancellation. It issued a further clarification of its position vis-a-vis Coulter in a statement:
What Ann Coulter is saying is unfortunate. Most pertaining to YAF is not true. Young America’s Foundation never canceled an event because there was no event to cancel. Berkeley never gave us a room or a hall.
On her own and without student involvement, Ann started telling people she would appear at an off-campus event. We told her she should feel free to do so, and we would still pay her for her time, but we were unwilling to put students' physical safety at risk by sponsoring an open air event where violence was expected. We hired and flew in three security detail personnel to Berkeley earlier this week. They confirmed other intelligence we received that there was a heavy domestic terrorist presence and violence should be expected.
Ann is now saying we sided with Berkeley. Young America's Foundation did not side with Berkeley. We sued Berkeley. Litigation is unpredictable, but the facts in this case appear to be in our favor.
What would have undermined the lawsuit—and emboldened administrators across the country looking to justify restrictions on conservative speech—is if Ann showed up without permission from the school, despite warnings of violence, and students were injured.
This situation with Ann is unfortunate. The focus should be on Berkeley and our students' free speech rights.
Berkeley's apologists — step forward.
In addition to the student activists at Berkeley — nicknamed by their opponents as “Anti-First Amendment,” or “anti-fa” for short — there have been members of the mainstream press that have taken controversial positions on the Coulter clash.
The Washington Post provocatively headlined a story on the imbroglio, “Berkeley gave birth to the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s. Now, conservatives are demanding it include them” (as if it is somehow justifiable to exclude them). It wrote:
Modern conservatives, including Coulter, are aware of Berkeley's history — and have seized upon it. Even before the school decided to let her speak on campus in early May, Coulter had promised to go ahead with her speech.
“What are they going to do? Arrest me?” she said Wednesday on the Fox News show “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.
More recently, the New York Times covered the issue of Coulter's canceled speech:
The commentator and writer Ann Coulter canceled an appearance scheduled for today at the University of California, Berkeley. “It's a sad day for free speech,” she said.
But conservatives are eagerly putting themselves into volatile situations on campuses, inspired by a backlash against political correctness.
Free speech is a right that must be defended with absolutism because we risk members of society becoming accustomed to the policing of their own thoughts. When the imagination and avenues for recourse become bounded, the line between the legitimate concern for others and the arbitrary whim of self-interested power-holders may become blurred.
It would behoove the university students at Berkeley to mull the paraphrase, “first they came for the conservatives,” because radicalism is in the eye of the beholder. If one advocates speaking 'truth to power,' it is beyond hypocrisy to base one's moral position solely on those who hold it.
The substitution of a “safe space” for a free exchange of ideas thus leads to the attainment of neither.