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Coulter v. Berkeley: Protecting Free Speech is Not a Partisan Issue

by Shawn M. Griffiths, published
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." - First Amendment, Constitution of the United States

At the University of California, Berkeley, a speech by conservative author and commentator Ann Coulter was canceled in the wake of growing threats of violent protests. Such violence has already erupted multiple times this year at the university and in the streets of Berkeley.

Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks released a statement Wednesday, saying the venue in which Coulter was going to speak would not allow for adequate security by city police.

"Groups and individuals from the extreme ends of the political spectrum have made clear their readiness and intention to utilize violent tactics in support or in protest of certain speakers at UC Berkeley. In early February, a speaker’s presence on campus ignited violent conflict and significant damage to campus property. In March, political violence erupted on the streets of Berkeley. In April opposing groups again violently clashed on the edge of our campus. While some seem inclined to use these events and circumstances to draw attention to themselves, we remain focused on the needs, rights, and interests of our students and our community. We cannot wish away or pretend that these threats do not exist." - Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks

This has sparked a debate about the state of free speech not only on college campuses in the United States, but in the nation. Across the country, people have taken to the streets to protest the administration on a variety of issues, but threats of violence and mass protests have shut down conservative speakers and even nonpolitical events across the country.

See an argument from the right and left.

Threats of violence from protesters against local Republican marchers, for example, pressured event organizers to cancel the Roses parade in Portland, Oregon, which has a long history of kicking off parade season in the city.

There is an old, famous quote attributed to French philosopher Voltaire (though no one to date has actually been able to find it in his works) that says, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This gets to the heart of what free speech is about, a concept that makes up a large cornerstone of why the United States was founded in the first place.

There are some, however, who appear to be sending the message: “I do not agree with what you say, and I will fight to the death to keep you from saying it.”

Protecting free speech is a nonpartisan issue. That is evident in the fact that people from across the political spectrum have come out condemning threats against Coulter and denying her free speech rights.

“Obviously Ann Coulter’s outrageous ― to my mind, off the wall. But you know, people have a right to give their two cents-worth, give a speech, without fear of violence and intimidation,” U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders told the Huffington Post.

There is a reason the first protections provided in the Bill of Rights concern free speech and the free expression of ideas, not only in the public forum, but in matters of government policy and action. It helps guarantee that the ultimate sovereigns in the Republic and the ultimate check on the government are the people.

Situations like Ann Coulter’s raise the question of where our country is at when it comes to free speech. Is it being threatened in some places? Is the political divide so wide and deep that the end goal has become about silencing the opposition altogether rather than allowing the free exchange of ideas?

View from the Right

Author: Jeff Powers, IVN Author

I must admit, I never thought I would be on the same side of an issue as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Bill Maher but that’s what happens when Muslim’s are afforded more protections on a university campus than the First Amendment.

The FIRST Amendment is just that for a reason. The Constitution affords those with all viewpoints, the right to express those thoughts publicly. Whether you agree with a point of view or not, doesn’t preclude the ability of those thoughts to be made public. Be it right wing or left wing, those practicing Islam, Christianity, or Atheism, whether you are heterosexual or with the LGBTQ community, the United States’ foundation of celebrating diverging viewpoints and backgrounds should be celebrated, not silenced.

Shameful the ACLU issued a statement on Ann Coulter that contained a “bigoted” caveat. And where are the tenured faculty at UC Berkeley who’ve made a very healthy living defending the First Amendment? I’m talking to you, Robert Reich, and many others at that campus who’ve denounced ideas they don’t agree with using First Amendment protections.

When he was running for governor in 1964, Ronald Reagan addressed similar unrest at UC Berkeley, and used it as a cornerstone of his candidacy. Reagan said:

“Do we no longer think it necessary to teach self-respect, self-discipline, and respect for law and order? Will we allow a great university to be brought to its knees by a noisy dissident minority? Will we meet their neurotic vulgarities with vacillation and weakness? Or will we tell those entrusted with administering the university we expect them to enforce a code based on decency, common sense, and dedication to the high and noble purpose of that university?”

Video of Reagan’s more pointed response is here when he became governor in 1967.

For UC Berkeley, students who are taking the stance that their  “lives are literally in danger” from speech that lies counter to their belief system is utter nonsense. Time to grow up, stop attacking those you disagree with, learn the importance of cognitive discourse and leave the constitution alone. It survived Barack Obama, it will survive Donald Trump.

View from the Left

A battle for free speech or another instance of manufactured outrage?

Author: Kendall Shain, IVN Author

Berkeley has unfortunately been host to a number of violent protests this year in and around the campus as extreme right and left groups clash. I don’t believe there is ever an excuse for such violence. It is sad that free speech is being hindered by it, but in my opinion, the university’s hands are tied.

Important to note in this drama, Coulter’s speech was not fully canceled. The university offered speaking slots next month in light of safety concerns.

Simply increasing police involvement and carrying on with the event would likely not prevent a violent clash. I was a student at UC Santa Barbara when rubber bullets and tear gas were used against students during a riot, and one of my friends was even hit in the face with a rubber bullet. The university has a responsibility to prevent such violent clashes.

Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks sent a letter to the campus Wednesday, saying, "This is a university, not a battlefield. The university has two non-negotiable commitments, one to Free Speech the other to the safety of our campus community."

I don’t see this as an unreasonable response to an unfortunate situation. Yes, free speech should be fostered and encouraged on campus. However, in light of recent events, why should the school allow another event to take place which will almost certainly lead to violence, and serve to manufacture outrage?

Coulter was invited to campus by the same GOP college group who invited far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to campus. Milo is an undeniably controversial individual, even among fellow Republicans. Coulter herself has pushed some extreme and divisive rhetoric, such as claiming that “we have Mexican rapists pouring into our country,” and was invited to the campus to speak on immigration.

Is it valid to question how and why the Berkeley College Republicans chooses their speakers? Are they deliberately poking a hornet’s nest by inviting individuals with contentious viewpoints?

And what is the point? If the point of inviting conservative speakers to campus is to present alternate viewpoints, wouldn’t their mission be better served by picking individuals a typical Berkeley liberal might be more likely to listen to?

What do you think?

Photo Credit: Christopher Halloran /

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