UC Berkeley “reversed its decision to cancel a speech by the conservative author Ann Coulter, approving her to appear on campus in early May,” the New York Times reported this afternoon. The stakes of protecting the May event are high, for all of the reasons discussed below. If successful, Berkeley will reverse a dangerous trend that threatened everyone’s rights. Its leaders deserve credit for hearing criticism and reconsidering their chosen course.
On Wednesday, the University of California, Berkeley, announced that it was canceling a scheduled speech by Ann Coulter, citing security concerns. Just weeks ago, Berkeley cancelled a speech by Milo Yiannopolous after armed radicals clad in black overwhelmed event security, threw Molotov cocktails in the street, and smashed windows at the campus student union. That was “not a proud night for this campus, the home of the free speech movement,” a UC Berkeley spokesperson said, while the Los Angeles Times editorialized that the success of the violence “should make supporters of free speech shiver.”
And this week’s news bolsters that assessment.
When violence successfully stopped the Yiannopolous event, an incentive was created for threats of future violence and for violence itself. Thus, the clash in Berkeley two days ago between Trump supporters and leftists that Mother Jones’s Shane Bauer characterized as follows: “Militias, alt-right, nazis etc won today in Berkeley. They outnumbered the opposition, pushed it back, and held downtown.” That a second speech is now postponed due to more threats of violence from the far left compounds the problem. Berkeley, a public institution, is compelled by both the Constitution and California law to protect free speech, even if campus Republicans there continue to degrade themselves by abetting or being fooled by nihilistic performance artists—and even if campus leftists invite the most odious of their fellow travelers.
Now, rather than giving campus Republicans the booby prize of having to sit through an Ann Coulter speech, an experience more likely to evoke shame than pride as they age and mature into adults, her critics achieved the booby prize of postponing it.
That outcome is awful for Coulter detractors.
This ought to be a challenging time for the right-wing polemicist, who only recently found herself in much the same position as Madonna: Both provocateurs exploited cultural boundaries, stoking outrage to give their work reach beyond their talent, and profited—only to wane in relevance as their industries became crowded with imitators. Then Donald Trump got into politics. He was unsurpassed in his willingness to state odious beliefs, and really, truly the best at stoking ethnic tensions to benefit himself. Coulter couldn’t beat him in the attention economy—he was maximally shameless, denying her a key advantage she has over many rivals. Nor would she oppose a coalition that included so many of her fans. But she could join him, being one of those rare sorts who is willing to stoke humanity’s darkest impulses.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, when people with good character spoke more responsibly, Coulter said, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians.”
In 2016, she published In Trump We Trust, adding sycophancy to the mercenary indignities to which she has subjected herself, staking her credibility (among the narrow slice of the ideological spectrum where she had any left) on a known huckster.
Right-wing entertainers excel at getting rich as they lead their base astray.
Today, as Trump and his circle continue to suck up most of the outrage oxygen in America—meanwhile making fools of their populist supporters by betraying them at many turns—Coulter ought to enjoy no more relevance than she has respect or esteem, her work read mostly among authoritarian AARP members as their younger analogs gravitate toward Yiannopoulos, a hateful Lady Gaga to her bigoted Madonna. In fairness, Madonna never responded to Gaga’s success by donning a meat dress of her own, whereas Coulter watched a violent mob elevate Milo by preventing him from speaking at Berkeley, then proceeded to follow the character she helped create.
Her critics would have done well to deny her attention by treating her scheduled appearance with the ambivalent yawn every provocateur most dreads. Instead, they began playing into her hands, situating her appearance in a paradigm where free speech is cast as being in conflict with anti-racism—a wrongheaded frame anathema to civil-rights heroes and marginalized protesters the world over. It guarantees either that bigots like Coulter will be seen by many as occupying a moral high ground, or that free speech will suffer, hitting marginalized groups hardest in the end.
Issuing violent threats was, for the left, the most counterproductive of all courses. It generated just the sort of attention Coulter thrives on. And it is remaking Berkeley into a place where the illiberal right can reliably bait the illiberal left into raising their profile.
UC Berkeley’s response threatens to do even more damage than those making threats, all but guaranteeing that the Heckler’s Veto is attempted more often going forward.
As the New York Times put it:
The University of California, Berkeley, on Wednesday canceled a scheduled speech by the conservative author Ann Coulter, in the latest blow to the institution’s legacy and reputation as a promoter and bastion of free speech...
Think of it. “Coulter said the university insisted that her speech take place in the middle of the day, that only students could attend and that the exact venue wouldn’t be announced until the last minute,” the Washington Post reported. “She said that she agreed with the conditions but that that apparently wasn’t good enough.”
Berkeley is the flagship public university in a state with the seventh largest economy in the world. It employs an entire state police force that reports to its leaders. It is situated beside a major city that protects one of America’s most important ports. Given notice, is it really unable to secure a polemicist’s speech against violence? Its ongoing failures to do so threaten anyone who runs afoul of any mob.