Campus Free Speech

Howard Dean Thinks 'Hate Speech Is Not Protected By the First Amendment.' It Is, Though.

Ann Coulter's remarks might be hateful, but they shouldn't prevent her from speaking at UC-Berkeley.



Here we go again: Former Democratic National Committee chairman tweeted that "hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment." As Dean—who once ran for president of the United States—should know, this is completely wrong.

Dean's tweet was a response to another tweet from a former New York Times reporter who pointed out that Ann Coulter once joked about how Timothy McVeigh should have blown up The NYT instead of a federal building. Coulter is in the news because the University of California-Berkeley cancelled her planned visit to campus on grounds that administrators could not guarantee her safety—irate protesters have vowed mob violence if she speaks. The university has now reversed that decision, thankfully.

Coulter's history of engaging in hate speech might be a reason for students not to invite her to speak. But her speech, hateful though it may be, is not illegal. The Constitution does not exempt "hate speech" from First Amendment protection.

Similarly, the Supreme Court does not recognize "hate" as a category of speech outside the scope of the First Amendment. In the 2011 decision Snyder v. Phelps, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church's right to picket a military serviceman's funeral and wave signs displaying such messages as "God hates you," "fag troops," and "You're going to hell." If this kind of speech is constitutional, it seems obvious that Coulter's joke is as well.

Specific, true threats of violence are not protected by the First Amendment. But even if Coulter's remark was intended to be serious, it would have amounted to an endorsement of previous violence, not a call to future violence.

So Dean should brush up on the First Amendment.

For what it's worth, not all former Democratic politicians have cast aside the principle of free speech in their zeal to denounce Coulter's visit to Berkeley. Robert Reich—a leftist intellectual, former secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton, and professor of public policy at Berkeley—recently expressed relief that the university was allowing Coulter's event to proceed.

"I'm glad the university has reversed course," he wrote. "How can students understand the vapidity of Coulter's arguments without being allowed to hear her make them, and question her about them?"

He continued:

It's one thing to cancel an address at the last moment because university and local police are not prepared to contain violence – as occurred, sadly, with Yiannopoulos. It's another thing entirely to cancel an address before it is given, when police have adequate time to prepare for such eventualities.

Free speech is what universities are all about. If universities don't do everything possible to foster and protect it, they aren't universities. They're playpens.

Kudos to Reich. This is exactly the kind of full-throated defense of free speech I wish all university professors were making on a daily basis.