The latest skirmish of the campus speech wars began when rightwing pundit Ann Coulter was invited to speak by the College Republicans at the University of California at Berkeley.
On Wednesday, after threats of violent protest, the school administration rescinded its permission for the event on the grounds that campus security could not guarantee safety for Coulter and her audience. That determination was informed by a similar incident earlier this year, in which a planned speech by former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos was met by a large group of protesters, a fraction of whom were violent.
Coulter, however, has vowed the show must go on. “What are they going to do? Arrest me?” she said. “No, I am definitely giving the speech.”
Now, I have no intention of offering a Unified Theory of Free Speech and Controversial Speakers on Campus in this post. Still, there are a few questions I’d like to raise.
First, is protest the same as censorship? Defenders of free speech (of whom I am one) often conflate the two, which I believe to be a mistake. As I wrote in a 2014 column, there is nothing wrong with students protesting people they believe to be spreading immoral ideas.
It should go without saying that violent protests are reprehensible and unacceptable. But peaceful protests are not censorship; they are speech. And if your ideas can’t stand up to some angry college kids, maybe they weren’t very good ideas to begin with. In that sense, kudos to Coulter for planning to speak anyway. Too many other speakers are not so bold.
Second, is it the school’s responsibility to host controversial speakers on campus? At Reason, Robby Soave seems to say yes:
The case [for giving Coulter a platform] 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.
Soave says in his headline that if “even one” Berkeley student wants to hear Coulter, she should be hosted, and to deny that is to prioritize one group’s rights over another. I understand this argument, but I don’t think I’m convinced a commitment to free speech on campus means public universities must host (and, crucially, pay for security to protect) any speaker whom any student wants to hear.
Furthermore, if a speaker is invited by students who already agree with their message, is that really a “thought-provoking learning experience”? It sounds to me more like preaching to the choir. It might be thought-provoking for the protesters, but the fact that they’re protesting suggests they are already familiar with the message content and know they do not like it.
That leaves us with possible provocation for students in the undecided and/or apathetic middle, but in the internet age, they are more likely to have their thoughts provoked by reading about Coulter online than going to see her in person, especially at an event that would require them to risk violence or social ostracism.
That brings me to my third question, which is whether public universities should recognize and fund student clubs in the first place.
Because that’s really the source of this whole boondoggle, right? The College Republicans want to host Coulter, and they want to do it on campus with university funds and university-provided security. The protesters, many if not most of whom are also students, do not want to host Coulter on campus with university funds and university-provided security. The main issue here is the College Republicans’ status as a university-sanctioned and supported club.
If the College Republicans were an independent organization that wanted to use university facilities for their event, they would rent the space and provide their own security, probably signing a contract taking responsibility for any damage caused by protesters. They would make their own calculations about whether hosting Coulter is worth the risk of protest — though the likelihood of violence would substantially decrease absent what is perceived as a public university’s tacit endorsement of the speech.
“Students pay good money” for the opportunity to hear from speakers like Coulter, Soave concludes, and the “people taking it away from them are not the good guys.” Maybe that opportunity would be easier to preserve if students of all political stripes weren’t required to pay for it. If the Berkeley College Republicans want to be certain they can safely host Ann Coulter, they should do the job themselves.