Berkeley paradox: Birthplace of free speech now offended by it

The uproar over Ann Coulter's scheduled talk underscores a shift in public understanding about freedom of expression – particularly on college campuses. The talk, set for April 27, has been called off.

Ben Margot/AP
A leaflet is seen stapled to a message board near Sproul Hall on the University of California at Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif., on April 21, 2017. The University of California, Berkeley, says it's preparing for possible violence on campus whether Ann Coulter comes to speak or not.

What started as a debate over conservative pundit Ann Coulter's scheduled talk at the University of California, Berkeley, has become a nationwide showdown over freedom of expression, with a lawsuit filed and riots in the offing.

Ms. Coulter’s brand of polemic conservatism – often associated with white nationalism and the “alt-right” movement – has come up against left-wing elements who refuse to tolerate such ideas.

“We don’t accept the right of immigrant-basher bigots to come to Berkeley and help propel Trump’s deportation machine to make it more hostile for human beings who are here,” says Hoku Jeffrey, a Berkeley graduate and representative of By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a left-wing group that participated in previous protests that grew violent. “There is nothing that makes that OK.”

In insisting Coulter be allowed to speak, conservatives are asserting the right to speak freely. In protesting her presence, groups like BAMN are wielding the right to assembly.

“You have these two groups that are ideologically opposed to each other that are both trying to express their First Amendment rights,” says Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute in Washington. “People need to be reminded that free speech rights are indivisible. When you try to silence one group, the precedent you’re setting will be used against you.”

The furor first caused UC Berkeley to cancel Coulter's April 27 visit. The university then reversed its decision and offered to reschedule. But the Berkeley College Republicans and the Young America's Foundation, which had invited her, filed a lawsuit saying the university infringed their constitutional rights. Through it all, Coulter vowed to proceed on April 27 as planned – until Wednesday, when she canceled, saying the groups had withdrawn their support.

The conflict threatened to once more turn violent, as it did earlier this month when anarchists and right-wing agitators clashed near campus in a bloody melee. In February, riots broke out when masked protesters tried to stop alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at the university.

Pundits have noted the irony that the university that birthed the free-speech movement of the 1960s is now the venue for such a showdown. But in a way, that's the point. The uproar over Coulter's appearance underscores a shift in thought about freedom of expression – particularly on college campuses, which have become more dominated by liberal ideas in the past 25 years.

“Berkeley should be the epicenter of the marketplace of ideas,” writes First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza for CNN. "Unfortunately, it has become the most intolerant place in America.”

'A dangerous equivalency'

Through the fall of 1964, UC Berkeley was ground zero for student protests against a ban on political activity on campus – particularly causes related to the Civil Rights Movement. The sit-ins and demonstrations were largely peaceful, and led to the now-celebrated student activism that swept the nation throughout the 1960s and ‘70s.

Today, Berkeley is not alone in protesting the presence of right-wing speakers. In July 2016, more than 300 students at Elon University in North Carolina petitioned against an appearance by Kathleen Parker, whose book, “Save the Males,” contends that feminism has made enemies of men. White nationalist Richard Spencer drew hundreds of protesters when he spoke at Texas A&M University in December.

Similar demonstrations have taken place at California State University, Los Angeles; Middlebury College in Vermont; and New York University.

Part of the issue, analysts say, is that universities are increasingly situated on one side of America's widening political gap.

In 2014, 60 percent of professors at higher education institutions identified themselves as “liberal” or “far-left,” compared with 42 percent in 1990. While that doesn’t mean colleges have become “indoctrination mills” for liberalism, critics say it has contributed to an environment where conservative thought is often dismissed as laughable – or outright evil.

“It’s like someone is claiming the Earth is flat or something,” says James Miller, a conservative professor of economics at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

The implication is that liberal ideas are more deserving of First Amendment protections than conservative ones, says constitutional lawyer Brian Levin. But all speech – regardless of content – has intrinsic value, he adds. 

“It's about allowing unfettered access to viewpoints,” says Professor Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Recent face-offs also give rise to a troubling view of free speech as something to be wielded by one faction against another.

“There’s a willingness to see speech as a kind of harm in and of itself. [People] feel attacked by these speakers,” adds Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan group in Philadelphia that aims to protect and sustain constitutional rights at educational institutions.

“If you are willing to cede speech as a form of violence, it makes a certain amount of sense to respond with physical violence,” he adds. “That’s setting up a dangerous equivalency.”

New civil rights movement on campuses

To those protesting campus appearances of conservative figures, focusing on free speech is missing the point.

“The right-wing people ... don’t have any lack of ways to publicly air their thoughts,” says Mr. Jeffrey of BAMN, whose goals include defending immigrant rights and affirmative action. “That’s not a real issue. Having real racial integration and inclusion, that’s a diversity of thought.”

The argument echoes the assertion at the heart of the new civil rights movement at college campuses. Across the country, minority students and their supporters have lobbied for inclusion that goes beyond token diversity, popularizing terms such as “safe spaces” and “microaggressions."

“They’re looking for that sense of belonging,” says Ajuan Mance, professor of English at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.

Eric McDaniel, a political scientist and organizational behavior expert at the University of Texas at Austin, says that while violence is not desirable, it can be necessary to get the public's attention.

“Sometimes it's an issue of desperation,” says Professor McDaniel. “You have to ask why people would want to tear down the system.”

History lessons

With tensions running high at Berkeley, cooler heads counsel taking the long view – and learning lessons from the past.

“There are times when we look back and realize we overreacted or this person had something important to say but was ignored,” Professor McDaniel says.

Even the free-speech protests of 1964 weren’t always regarded with pride. Lynne Hollander Savio, a former activist and widow of Berkeley protest leader Mario Savio, says the public so disapproved of their rallies that Ronald Reagan won the governorship of California in 1966 partly on the promise of restoring law and order to the university.

“When we first came on the scene, they hated us,” says Ms. Hollander Savio, who was a senior when the sit-ins took place and still lives near Berkeley.

“[They said] we were communist beatniks, ungrateful, that we ought to be sent out to work,” she recalls. Now, she says, “they say we had brought free speech to the university.”

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