So it looks like Ann Coulter just turned the volume up to 11 and broke off the knob.
The reference is to her ongoing dispute with UC Berkeley, which declined to provide her a venue for a speech she was contracted to give on campus Thursday. As more than one observer has pointed out, in cancelling a speaking engagement by the right-wing flame thrower, the famously liberal school has embarrassed, betrayed and besmirched its proud legacy as the birthplace of the free-speech movement of the 1960s. It has also more than earned the lawsuit filed against it Monday by the Berkeley College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation, the two groups sponsoring Coulter’s appearance.
The school says free speech is not the issue here, security is. You may recall the chaos that attended a February speaking engagement by Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart editor and professional ass who is arguably best known for directing a racist troll army that briefly drove “Saturday Night Live” star Leslie Jones off Twitter last year.
His speech had to be canceled after the university was, in the words of spokesman Dan Mogulof, “invaded by more than 100 individuals clad in ninja-like uniforms who were armed and engaged in paramilitary tactics.” They threw objects, set fires, and left about $100,000 in damage in their wake. The area has seen other recent violent political clashes as well.
So UCB, citing what it says is a credible threat of similar upheavals, initially demanded Coulter end her speech by mid-afternoon. She agreed, but the school then canceled outright. An offer of a different date was rejected. Coulter says she is otherwise engaged and also complains that the new date falls during a week when classes are canceled and students are busy studying for finals.
Coulter had already declared that she would be in Berkeley Thursday, no matter what. Late Tuesday, she upped the ante as word came that, since UCB will not provide her a venue, she will speak outside on the school’s Sproul Plaza. (Wednesday, Coulter said she was cancelling the speech, as The New York Times reported, “because she had lost the backing of conservative groups that had initially sponsored her appearance.”)
No matter what your opinion of Coulter, that is one heck of a gutsy move. In the first place, Sproul Plaza is the birthplace of the free-speech movement, which began in 1964 when a previous generation of Berkeley students protested and were arrested after the school barred them from handing out fliers discussing the Civil Rights Movement.
In the second place, and more important, Sproul is, again, an open plaza. If UCB professed its inability to secure her safety in a closed building with limited ingress and egress, what can it to do secure an open space?
With one deft move, Coulter just smashed the ball back at UCB with terminal velocity.
Had the school simply lived up to its own legacy, it would not be in this mess. Even taken at face value, UCB’s logic for cancellation of the engagement does not persuade. It strains credulity to believe campus police and the Berkeley Police Department, with its 170 sworn officers, could not secure the school sufficiently to allow Coulter to speak and protesters to protest while keeping 100 would-be rioters in line. Oakland’s 753 officers and San Francisco’s 2,293 are just down the road and across the bay, respectively, and could, one presumes, provide any needed reinforcement. Heck, if it’s that bad, call out the National Guard.
Even that would be better than this act of spineless capitulation, a public university ceding veto power over free speech to a bunch of terrorists. In so doing, it emboldens these left-wing punks – or some future army of right-wing thugs – to believe they can shut down any opinion they dislike just by threatening to misbehave. It is hard to imagine a worse message – or a more disheartening messenger.
There are few legitimate reasons for abridging free speech. If the speaker speaks slander, exhorts violence, or creates an abusive work environment, you might have a case. But the First Amendment carves out no exception for “hate speech.” Shame on Howard Dean for a recent silly tweet that claimed otherwise.
And shame on anyone else on the left who is willing to look the other way because this particular abridgment involves the vile – and reviled – Coulter. Freedom of speech is not the sole property of liberals, or of conservatives. It is the heritage of Americans.
Sorry, UCB, but this one is not even close. You should have simply provided a proper venue and allowed her to speak. Now the decision is out of your hands.
And whatever happens is squarely on your head.
Leonard Pitts Jr.; email@example.com.