Coulter Controversy Leaves Only Losers

The weight of the blame belongs with those groups that seriously and credibly threatened violence if Coulter spoke.
04/28/2017 09:04 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2017

By Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director, PEN America

The cancellation of Ann Coulter’s planned speech at the University of California, Berkeley, leaves everyone a loser. Coulter lost the opportunity to expound her views. The conservative organizations who invited her failed in what were presumably twin objectives: to amplify Coulter’s opinions and to test their progressive antagonists’ free speech bona fides. Those who protested her visit may consider her no-show a victory, but will find the triumph pyrrhic; accused of shutting down speech, they played right into the Coulter contingent’s hands. Besides, the speech silenced next time may be their own. The marauders who threatened violence may also count a win, but the affirmation of their tortured, barbaric logic will only fan the authoritarianism and hatreds they purport to assail. The university, caught between menacing plotters and event organizers who insisted on having it their way regardless of security concerns, suffered a bitter blow to its historic legacy as a breeding ground for free speech.

The pitched tenor and occasionally violent nature of current battles over free speech on campus are a reflection of this polarized moment in American politics. Having grown up with expanding LGBT rights, America’s first African American president, and a vocal immigrants’ rights movement, left-leaning students are on the leading edge of the plate tectonics that are remaking American society and values in ways that may better reflect and address what some have called “majority minority” America; a population in which no one racial group claims the majority. While precepts including racial and gender justice are championed, other liberal values— including free speech—sometimes get short-shrift in these circles. These students and their allies are meeting determined resistance from those—including some conservative classmates—who fear that treasured facets of our country and culture are at risk due to rapid demographic and social change. Neither side has a monopoly on either truth or tall talk.

The American university, which has a dual mission to offer an equal education in an inclusive setting to an increasingly diverse student body and to uphold stringent protections for academic freedom and free speech, is being torn apart by the tensions between these two roles. But the university’s dual responsibilities— as guardian of a campus that is truly open to both all students and to all ideas—can and must be reconciled. Berkeley has a duty to ensure that all students, and particularly those who are most vulnerable, are kept physically safe, free from discrimination, and psychologically supported to a point where they can learn and thrive. It must also uphold the university’s role as a forum where all viewpoints are allowed to be heard, even those that may be offensive or even hurtful to others.

In the Berkeley case, the weight of the blame belongs with those groups that seriously and credibly threatened violence if Coulter spoke. To threaten violence is a crime; such speech is not protected. No protected speech, no matter how offensive, can justify resort to violence. To accept the idea that a planned speech that had not yet taken place could constitute a valid provocation to violence would allow our government to constrain all manner of speech—a power that our constitution and courts have repeatedly rejected. No reputable group that aligns with either progressive or conservative values, both of which embrace the protection of free speech, can condone or tolerate allies willing to resort to violence. That racial minorities, immigrants, women, and LGBT individuals are disproportionately victimized by violence is not a truth that can in any way legitimize violence in the name of protecting those groups from noxious speech. While diverse student bodies may think that closing off offensive speech helps to make for a more hospitable environment, they run the risk that while universities admit students from an ever-expanding range of backgrounds, the education they receive once inside the gates grows narrower and narrower.

But the Berkeley situation has more blame to go around. A critical decision must be drawn between the decision to invite a speaker to campus and the decision to disinvite. At Berkeley, as at many schools, decisions to invite are decentralized: any accredited student organization is ordinarily free to invite whom they like and book a room to host them. This is as it should be: students should have the chance to shape the intellectual discourse that surrounds them, even if it means they will sometimes give a platform to viewpoints that deeply offend other students or run counter to the university’s values. This isn’t to deny the role of discretion and discernment in conferring invitations: student groups, academic departments, and university officials should all exercise their best judgment in asking whether the guests they are thinking of inviting have valuable and distinctive ideas, perspectives, and expertise to offer the campus community. It’s not wrong to ask whether certain guests will cause genuine hurt to fellow students and it’s commendable to take those feelings into consideration before invitations are made. But ultimately the decisions, appropriately, rest with the many duly constituted campus bodies who extend the invitations in the first place.

While campuses are right to allow invitations to be issued liberally, disinvitations should happen very sparingly. Although disinvitations prompted by the anticipated content of a campus speech may be legal and constitutional, they are still wrong in principle, for the same reason that prior restraint—the suppression of material before it is aired or published—and other forms of pre-publication censorship rejected by US courts and inimical to a free society. Such disinvitations privilege one set of views over others, constrict the autonomy of students and deprive audiences of the opportunity to hear out viewpoints before a speaker can even open her mouth. If a guest has been invited through established procedures that apply equally to all campus groups, then for university officials to disinvite the guest is to discard those neutral procedures in favor of the subjective preferences of those who object to the speech. Instead of calling for invitations to be rescinded or speeches to be canceled, students who object to a speaker’s ideas should protest vociferously (but non-violently), hold counter-programming, offer rebuttals; in short, make their views known in any way short of preventing the rejected speech from being voiced or heard.

When credible threats of violence emerged in response to Ann Coulter’s planned speech, the best approach would have been for university officials, speech organizers, Coulter, and the leaders of credible non-violent protest groups to open dialogue about how to collectively reject thuggery, enable the speech to proceed, and let peaceful protesters have their say. Instead, the terms for the speech were litigated through the media, with dates, times, and restrictions being mooted and rejected by parties that may have been more interested in a public relations and legal battle than in actually getting Coulter to campus. Some of the university’s conditions—for example requiring that the speech happen in daylight hours— seem well warranted. But Berkeley fell short in explaining why other constraints it imposed, including requiring that the speech be held after the end of classes, were narrowly drawn to meet safety concerns without dampening Coulter’s ability to be heard.

Upholding free speech isn’t always easy; it can require creativity, flexibility, and compromise across groups with very different views. While bellicose debates over the merits of a particular speaker or her antagonists may make good fodder for cable television, genuine defenders of free speech should focus on the serious barriers to an open campus—including socio-economic, racial, gender, and political divisions, as well as entrenched intolerance for opposing viewpoints— and set about to help address them. The values of diversity and inclusion on the one hand, and of free speech and academic freedom on the other, are collectively sacrosanct. Making them fit together is an exercise in problem-solving, not grandstanding.

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