Dear Commons Community,
Over the past week, a major free speech controversy has been brewing at the University of California, Berkeley, after the University administration informed Berkeley’s College Republicans, who invited Coulter to speak, that an 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. Bernie Sanders strongly criticized the University administration for its decision. Here is an excerpt of Sanders’ comments as reported by various media including The Huffington Post:
“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.”
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.
Many other liberals argue that disruptions that effectively veto certain points of view are wrongheaded and counterproductive no matter how repugnant the speaker’s views.
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.”
I am no fan of Ann Coulter but I agree fully with Sanders. We need not be afraid of ideas but of attempts on the part of persons or organizations that prevent ideas from being expressed.