Campus Free Speech

The Ann Coulter Debacle Has Turned Berkeley into an Unsafe Space

Free speech besieged by mob violence


Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Though conditions on the ground continue to change, it appears as if conservative firebrand Ann Coulter will not be visiting the University of California-Berkeley after all.

"While Ms. Coulter has now stated that she will not come to Berkeley tomorrow, the University of California Berkeley Police Department (UCPD) has seen evidence of and continues to plan for potentially violent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations on Sproul Plaza throughout the day," wrote UC-Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks in an email.

Given the threats of violence made against Coulter, and the university's inability to guarantee her safety, her host—the university's Young Americans for Freedom chapter—evidently lost its nerve.

This is not the worst thing to ever happen to Coulter: she's a wealthy author, an influential conservative pundit, and frequent cable news guest. Indeed, being banned from campus is something of a badge of honor for provocative right-wingers these days.

The biggest victim of Berkeley's failure to safeguard free speech is the principle of free speech itself—and, by extension, the students and professors who are most reliant on the principle.

Let's not sugarcoat what happened at Berkeley: some students—conservatives who represent an intellectual minority on campus—wanted to bring Coulter to campus to speak. Other people—students, local activists—threatened mob violence if the event should take place as planned. The administration, despite knowing that the conservative students had the moral right to host Coulter, implicitly sided with the activists, granting them a heckler's veto. Ergo, Coulter will not speak at Berkeley.

The message is clear: students and professors who wish to entertain a controversial speaker, or espouse controversial ideas themselves, are at the mercy of the mob. The effort to make universities safe from hateful and bigoted speech—undertaken by students, and supported by administrators—has produced a college campus that is utterly unsafe, in every meaning of the word.

"For the future of our democracy, we must protect bigoted speech from government censorship," said the American Civil Liberty Union's David Cole in a statement. "On college campuses, that means that the best way to combat hateful speech is through counter-speech, vigorous and creative protest, and debate, not threats of violence or censorship."