Campus Free Speech

If Even One Berkeley Student Wants to Hear Ann Coulter, She Should Speak There

Violent protesters and their defenders are ignoring the rights of tuition-paying students.


PG / Splash News/Newscom

The University of California-Berkeley cancelled conservative author Ann Coulter's upcoming speech on grounds that the police could not guarantee her safety—a damaging blow to free speech on campus.

Administrators want to reschedule the event; the Young Americans for Freedom, who invited Coulter in the first place, have vowed to proceed as planned.

Conservative students have good reason to continue with the event anyway, although one can hardly blame administrators, at this point, for being concerned. Berkeley has played host to increasing levels of mob violence as a result of invitations to controversial speakers like Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. Blame here rests solely on the shoulders of the people promising violence in response to speech they oppose.

Student activists and local Berkeley leftists don't want Coulter, who has a history of making vile statements, to bring her right-wing shtick to campus. And of course, they have the right to object to her presence, to protest her, and to criticize those who invited her. That's free speech. But free speech does not include the right to engage in censorship, or to engage in violence, or to threaten violence in order to prevent the university from playing host to a controversial speaker.

Is Coulter's perspective worth hearing? While she believes a great many things that I find reprehensible, note that she is one of a handful of high-profile figures on the right who opposes increased military intervention in Syria. (Yes, this is a departure from her full-throated Iraq War cheerleading, though at least she's flip-flopping in the correct direction.) And despite her quasi-religious devotion to President Trump during the campaign, recently she has shown a willingness to criticize him for catering to the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party.

But the case for giving Coulter a platform is actually much simpler, and does not require any defense whatsoever of her views. The case is this: the students who invited her would like to meet her and hear her speak. Presumably, a number of less politically active students—who probably dislike Coulter, but would appreciate the opportunity to hear from her anyway—do as well. Students are paying thousands of dollars to attend Berkeley—a public university—for precisely this opportunity: the opportunity to enjoy thought-provoking learning experiences. Groups whose violent tactics force administrators to rescind speaking invitations are essentially forcing student to waste their investment.

Those who say that students and local activists have a right to shut down the Coulter event are prioritizing one group's wishes over another's. They are trampling some students' rights in order to please others. They are saying the rights of the offended matter more than the rights of the open-minded.

Some have criticized Coulter's own approach to the issue: she demanded that the university expel any student who engages "in violence, mayhem or heckling to prevent an invited speaker from speaking." It's harsh, but I don't fully understand why it's particularly controversial. Yes, people who engage in violence should be arrested, and yes, students who prevents an invited speaker from speaking should be subjected to some kind of disciplinary action, because they are violating the rights of members of campus who are interested hearing a contrary perspective.

Students pay good money for such an opportunity. The people taking it away from them are not the good guys.