There are few prospects in life more appealing than the silence of Ann Coulter. She brings to mind what novelist Mary McCarthy said about playwright and Stalinist Lillian Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'” If the world never suffered another emission from Coulter’s toxic brain, it would be a better place.
But she said she would speak at the University of California at Berkeley on April 27 even though the school administration had canceled the speech hosted by two student groups. Faced with that challenge, the university changed its mind, sort of, proposing to let her appear May 2. All I can say is something I never thought I would: It will be a great thing for Ann Coulter to speak.
Berkeley is an exceptional institution whose history includes the 1964-1965 protests that gained fame as the Free Speech Movement. Long known as a hotbed of left-wing activism, it has lately gained attention as a place where right-wingers venture at their peril.
In February, the administration abruptly called off a talk by then-Breitbart News troll Milo Yiannopoulos after protesters threw stones and firebombs and smashed windows. In all, they caused $100,000 in property damage and several injuries.
The destruction came not from students intolerant of unwanted opinions, according to the university, but from masked self-styled anarchists bent on wreaking havoc. After Yiannopoulos was invited, the administration had issued a ringing statement condemning his views while defending his right to speak. It affirmed the university’s commitment to “the principle of tolerance, even when it means we tolerate that which may appear to us as intolerant.”
The event was canceled only after it became clear that the unexpected violence might prove “lethal,” as campus police said. Assistant Vice Chancellor Dan Mogulof offered a plausible excuse: “We have never seen this on the Berkeley campus. This was an unprecedented invasion.”
Whatever turmoil might attend Coulter’s appearance, though, would not be unprecedented, and it would not be impossible to contain. With so much advance notice, the university should be able to mobilize an abundance of police resources to prevent and, if need be, suppress another riot.
By deciding to deny her a venue until a time it deems suitable — September was its preference — the administration gave the strong impression that its devotion to intellectual liberty is negotiable.
Its partial reversal Thursday may have been a way of avoiding the embarrassment of having Coulter show up in defiant glory. Or it may have stemmed from the greater embarrassment of letting feral troublemakers shut down any event they choose. But Coulter, noting that classes will not be in session May 2, has vowed to come April 27.
At other public institutions, the record of tolerance is mixed. When white nationalist Richard Spencer was invited to Texas A&M, the school defended his right to free speech and deployed riot police to handle any violence — while sponsoring a well-attended counter-event.
Conservative writer Heather MacDonald’s talk at UCLA went off as planned but provoked angry yelling from some in the audience, ending with her being escorted out by cops. When Spencer was invited to Auburn, the university said no — only to be overruled by a federal court.
Auburn’s excuse was the same one offered by Berkeley: It couldn’t permit an event that might jeopardize safety. That policy defers to what lawyers call the “heckler’s veto”— which gives those inclined to violence the privilege of silencing any speech that might upset them.
State universities, being organs of government, are bound by the First Amendment. That may be why some of the worst episodes, including the one at Middlebury College when conservative writer Charles Murray was shouted down and physically assaulted, have occurred at private institutions, which may ban speech they don’t like. But the spirit of free inquiry ought to be upheld at any college or university worthy of the name.
For any school to impede speakers because critics might protest violently is to give the critics control of who may speak. That’s why Berkeley’s handling of Coulter is so dangerous. At the moment, it’s rewarding thugs for being thuggish and thus encouraging more thuggery. It threatens to make the school a hostage to bullies instead of a place where ideas may be heard and answered without fear.
Berkeley faces a dilemma that implicates the most vital part of its mission. And right now, it’s making the wrong choice.
Steve Chapman, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at www.chicagotribune.com/chapman.
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