OMAHA ― Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) criticized the security threats to a speaking event by conservative pundit Ann Coulter at the University of California, Berkeley that prompted the school to postpone the talk.
“I don’t like this. I don’t like it,” Sanders told The Huffington Post after speaking at a rally for Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello on Thursday night. “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.”
University officials on Tuesday night informed Berkeley’s College Republicans, who invited Coulter to speak, that the April 27 event would need to be rescheduled due to concerns that her speech would set off violent protests and make it difficult to maintain campus security.
Campus police have learned that groups responsible for recent clashes during demonstrations on campus and throughout the city planned to target Coulter’s event, according to the university.
Although on Thursday the university offered to host the speech in the afternoon on May 2, Coulter and the College Republicans have rejected the proposal, arguing that students are less likely to be able to attend an afternoon speech. In insisting on the original speaking date, they also note that May 2 is during a period when classes have ended and students are studying for finals.
Coulter has said that she still plans to speak on April 27 in the evening. She and the College Republicans are threatening litigation against the university.
The controversy over Coulter’s speech follows violent clashes between supporters of President Donald Trump and left-wing Trump critics at a pro-Trump rally in a park in the city of Berkeley. UC Berkeley also canceled a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos in February amid violent protests by some 1,500 people.
The events at UC Berkeley and protests against conservative speakers, which sometimes turned violent at other college campuses, have ignited a debate among progressives about the boundaries of free speech with some on the left insisting that racial demagoguery deserves to be countered as aggressively as possible.
Sanders made clear he is firmly in the latter camp.
“To me, it’s a sign of intellectual weakness,” he said. “If you can’t ask Ann Coulter in a polite way questions which expose the weakness of her arguments, if all you can do is boo, or shut her down, or prevent her from coming, what does that tell the world?”
“What are you afraid of ― her ideas? Ask her the hard questions,” he concluded. “Confront her intellectually. Booing people down, or intimidating people, or shutting down events, I don’t think that that works in any way.”
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who was also in Omaha to speak at the rally for Mello, expressed similar sentiments, noting that opponents of the black civil rights movement sued protesters and media outlets that reported on them in an effort to restrict their speech.
“Absolutely protest these people you don’t like, absolutely write against them, denounce them,” the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee advised progressives angry at right-wing speakers. “But the solution to bad speech is good speech, the solution to bad speech is more speech. Once you start saying, ‘You can’t talk,’ then whoever’s in power gets to impose that on whoever’s not in power and that’s not good.”
At the same time, Ellison argued that UC Berkeley and other institutions might have legitimate concerns about the costs of hosting such an event that should give them a say in where and how the speech takes place.
“At the end of the day, is there some venue where Ann Coulter gets to speak on that campus? I think there’s gotta be,” he told HuffPost. “But you know, I think the university president saying, ‘This is going to cost us a lot of money and we need more space and couldn’t it be at another venue that’s bigger, that’s easier to defend’ ― I think those are all factors that need to be part of the conversation as well.”