"Freedom of speech is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is. If you cannot speak... I mean, that's what marks us off. That's what marks us off from the stones and the stars. You can speak freely. It is almost impossible for me to describe. It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels. I don't want to push this beyond where it should be pushed, but I feel it." -- Mario SavioI must admit that I love living in my protective, progressive bubble in Berkeley where the political spectrum runs from far left to left. Sure, we have our share of bullying, misogyny and bigotry. And we suffer from plenty of the other problems that plague the country, from vast income disparity to intractable homelessness. But I would venture to say that compared to most communities in America, we are far more more welcoming of those who are marginalized by society due to gender identity, race, religion and ethnicity, and immigration status. I am proud to be raising my children in such a community of tolerance and respect.
But it has been much more challenging to teach -- or model -- tolerance of and respect for those who have opposing political views. When the president is a dangerously unhinged, ignorant bigot, should we tolerate those who speak out in support of his presidency and respect those who endorse his more hateful positions? Should we at least support their right to speak? What if the speech is likely to incite intolerance or violence? Where does political speech end and hate speech begin?
In fraught times like these, one would look to the University of California at Berkeley, a beacon of intellectual rigor, progressive thought, and free speech for answers. Right?
A Republican group on campus invited Ann Coulter to speak next week. Now, you could not pay me enough money to listen to Ann Coulter. I'd rather guzzle antifreeze. She spews provocative, hateful, ignorant right-wing nonsense designed to appeal to narrow-minded people who have far less education than UC Berkeley students. But if some misguided young conservatives want to have her speak, then let her speak.
The University first decided to shut her down. Cal officials were apparently concerned with safety and security after the violence last Saturday in downtown Berkeley when residents were deprived of buying organic produce from the farmers' market, whose locale was overtaken by a pointless confrontation between alt-right dead-enders and anarchists with nothing better to do.
Officials also had in mind the violence that occurred in February when those same (non-student) anarchists disrupted the speech of Milo Yiannopolos, who had been invited by the same group of college Republicans that have invited Coulter.
There is certainly a question whether provocative right wing figures are being invited on campus not to speak but to provoke the predictable outrage and overreaction from outside groups, so that "liberal Berkeley" can then be blamed for intolerance when either the speech is cancelled or violence breaks out. Even if true, the answer isn't to shut down the speeches but to take measures to ensure a peaceful outcome.
With plenty of advance notice, it is hard to imagine why the University couldn't impose the necessary restrictions and security to permit Coulter to speak -- like keeping out people dressed head to toe in black who are armed with Molotov cocktails.
And, indeed, Berkeley has reversed itself and decided to let Coulter speak after all on alternate date. That's good news for the principle of free speech. It is bad news for those who have to listen to her. But, as Robert Reich, who is a Berkeley professor put it, "How can students understand the vapidity of Coulter’s arguments without being allowed to hear her make them, and question her about them?"
Update: Coulter apparently has found the University's conditions for her appearance unacceptable and is insisting on speaking as originally scheduled. Her refusal to consider that the University may have legitimate concerns about the safety of its students suggests that she is more interested in creating a spectacle than making a speech.