“We’re not voting for a Sunday School teacher.” I cringed. An hour and a half into my political science lecture series, Understanding the 2016 Campaign from Start to Finish, I sat up straight in my chair and eyed the guest speaker, interested in his claim. Corey Lewandowski, former campaign manager for Donald Trump, continued to answer the first-gen, immigrant, Muslim student who had asked if Lewandowski can genuinely support Trump’s problematic rhetoric. He went on, sans condemnation of Trump’s racist, sexist, islamophobic remarks, arguing that Trump knew how to control the news cycle and played this to his advantage.
As a Hillary supporter, I’d marked this day as a must-attend-at-all-costs lecture when I saw Lewandowski’s name on the syllabus. Don’t get me wrong, I was pretty excited when Robby Mook, manager of Hillary Clinton for President, came but I recognized the gravitas of listening to the expert that helped “a mutant from a carrot juicing accident” obtain the highest office in the country. Clearly, this man, flawed as he may be, would have political insight invaluable to my future in political science. This experience of listening and learning, and agreeing and disagreeing, with such a prominent political figure not only piqued my interest in the field, but also challenged me by forcing me to reevaluate my preconceptions about the Trump campaign.
This anecdote came to mind in response to the controversy at UC Berkeley regarding its discriminatory application of a policy to restrict an on-campus speech from ultra-conservative political commentator, Ann Coulter. Berkeley College Republicans had planned the speech for Thursday April 27, but it was cancelled the day before due to security concerns. Since that time, the administration has reinstated the speech, adhering to the specifications of a recently adopted and unpublished policy that allows University officials to restrict the time, place and manner of any event involving “high-profile speakers,” a vague term open to interpretation.
Of course, these two scenarios are not entirely comparable. Lewandowski has had his share of controversy and maybe he’s condoned Trump’s problematic remarks through a lack of condemnation of them, but Coulter is a different degree of crazy-town. She’s been quoted saying that stripping women of the right to vote would be “a personal fantasy” of hers; the murder of a Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller would be less like murder and more like “terminating Tiller in the 203rd trimester”; and widows of 9/11 victims are “self-obsessed,” “witches” and “harpies.” Nevertheless, though I obviously don’t agree with any of her statements, I still believe she should have the right to speak and share her ideas.
I would like to preface this by stating that I’m writing this from a place of privilege. I’m an upper-class, white, straight woman and clearly, a lot of Coulter’s comments don’t affect me personally. I’m not directly targeted or alienated by much of her rhetoric, and therefore perhaps I cannot understand the degree to which her speaking on a college campus could be potentially harmful to a student’s well-being. Still, the fact of the matter is that refusing to let her speak or restricting her speaking times to an extensive degree, violates her rights.
University officials rescheduled her speech to May 2, an unideal time considering that many students will be studying for finals, which are just a week out. In addition, they demanded the event be held before 3 p.m., a time frame when most students are in class and cannot attend. Even more, just a few weeks prior, the Berkeley College Republicans ended up cancelling an event with acclaimed conservative writer David Horowitz after the university used the same policy to restrict the event with similar time constraints at a venue over a mile from the main campus center. It’s worth pointing out that in the month of April, UC Berkeley did not restrict appearances from liberal figures on campus such as an event with Maria Echaveste, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton. While I genuinely believe that the event was cancelled due to concerns over the safety of both the students and Coulter, especially after the violence that ensued in February when right-wing author Milo Yiannopoulos visited, I still don’t believe that silencing the conservative viewpoint on campus is the way to go. Under established First Amendment doctrine called the “heckler’s veto,” it is illegal for a public entity to restrict the speech of someone based solely upon the fear of a violent reaction from the listening crowd.
Berkeley College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth organization, filed a lawsuit March 24 against the UC Berkeley administration. The plaintiffs argue that the defendants violated both their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The irony in it all is that UC Berkeley is deemed “the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement.” Of course, free speech, like a double-edged sword, can make way for hate speech. But this is why the actions taken by UC Berkeley are really setting up a dangerous precedent for sliding down the slippery slope of censorship. If students at a liberal university declare Ann Coulter’s words hate speech, what’s to stop students at a more conservative school from improperly deeming the Black Lives Matter movement as hate speech?
Harmeet Dhillon, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys for the lawsuit, spoke with me about the need for unfiltered dialogue and the important impact this precedent could set for people all over the country. “This is not an issue that we’re litigating here about conservatives or liberals on campus,” she said. “It’s an issue about equal access to government facilities, regardless of your viewpoint. That is a principle that applies across the board to all Americans, to all students on all campuses.”
In addition to setting a dangerous precedent, the actions of Berkeley officials are limiting students’ capacity to grow. Prominent Democrat Van Jones said it best when he advised college students to “be offended every single day” on campus. In Jones’ words, “I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you.”
Ironically, the biggest effect of this controversy has been the increase in screen time for Coulter. Berkeley is notoriously known as one of the most liberal schools in the country and any outspoken, right-wing figure who agrees to speak at a school like Berkeley is likely looking for publicity. Coulter probably wanted UC Berkeley to cancel her event and the school played right into her hands. Think about it — since last week she’s been all over the media blabbering about how the liberal snowflakes are too close-minded to let her speak, allowing her to further her anti-liberal agenda. She gets to appear as the defeated victim and then has an even bigger platform to spew her nonsensical views. As late-night comedian Trevor Noah put it, “She doesn’t actually want to speak, she wants to be stopped from speaking. It’s like your friend in a fight who’s like ‘HOLD ME BACK, HOLD ME BACK — no seriously hold me back I’m gonna get my ass kicked.’” Even when school officials agreed to let her speak on May 2, all of the restrictions still let her rightfully get away with being the victim of limited free speech. If the University would have let Coulter speak at the original planned event, opposing students could have boycotted, protested or even attended and challenged her.
The whole controversy has sparked urgent concern. The actions taken by the University play directly into critiques from ultra-conservative Americans, coddle intelligent students and limit their educational experiences, and pose a dire threat to the freedom of speech. Paradoxically, in order to protect democracy, we must protect the bigots.
Contact Sabrina Medler at smedler ‘at’ stanford.edu.