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Free Speech University

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UC Berkeley: A world-renowned school known for a long history of protests. About two weeks ago, Ann Coulter’s scheduled speech on campus was canceled after campus police could not ensure her safety at the event. Earlier this year, Milo Yiannopoulos was also scheduled to make a speech at Berkeley, but moments before he was set to speak, his event was canceled after protests turned into riots. Both Coulter and Yiannopoulos were unable to speak, raising questions about not only the nature of UC Berkeley, but more importantly, the state of college. Do colleges succumb to the pressure of students, and what does this mean for the future of freedom of speech on college campuses? On the other hand, we must also ask ourselves, do self-proclaimed provocateurs deserve a place on college campuses and are these riots justified?

Ann Coulter is a prominent right-wing pundit who, over the years, has gained a reputation for voicing controversial opinions. It is no wonder, during this time of political heat and turmoil, that the idea of her on campus would incite protests. Moreover, on the campus protest capital, UC Berkeley, this reaction was inevitable. Considering the events that occurred before with Milo Yiannopoulos, it is a surprise the protests didn’t become riots. However, there were threats and this only added more reason to not allow Coulter to speak on campus. Does this mean the college kneeled at the feet of students who were not only threatening the well-being of Coulter, but of average students who wanted to hear her regardless of whether they agreed or disagreed with her? College is a place where people want to experience new ideas and perspectives. While Coulter offers a perspective many find inflammatory, it doesn’t dismiss the fact that it makes people question their opinions. People don’t get a rise out of what someone says simply because it angers or shocks them. The emotion induced by the rhetoric voiced by people like Coulter, holds a deeper place in an individual. You ask yourself, “Why does this anger me? Why does this shock me? Why am I reacting this way?” It is similar to when a person hears something they agree with, they can respond with approval or enthusiasm. In this case, you would ask yourself, “Why do I approve of this? Why does it make me enthusiastic?” These feelings aren’t spontaneous; they are cultivated over a long period time.

Ann Coulter, who is a conservative political commentator, pulls out of a Berkeley speech in late April. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, labeled for reuse under the Creative Commons License)

It’s important to get a healthy dose of shock or anger from people you disagree with. It shows that debate is alive and well and protests are clearly a part of debate. It may be in a more physical form, but it is no less a demonstration of disagreement than verbal debate. What boggles my mind, though, is the fact that many of these protesters are sending threats! If the factor of the threat was taken out of this circumstance, everything about Coulter’s scheduled visit would hold little importance. Although I would be a little disappointed that students on college campuses are not more open to hearing certain opinions, it would not bother me because it’s their choice not to hear these opinions. It is their choice to protest against someone like Coulter and her beliefs and attempt to sway other students into changing their mind so they won’t attend the event. I am okay with this because it is other students’ choice to hear her opinions. It is other students’ choice to support someone like Coulter and her beliefs and resist the crowd of protesters. As long as both sides are represented and have the freedom to choose between attending or not attending, protesting or supporting, there is no problem. The problems come into view when threats are sent or when they are actually done as was the case with Milo Yiannopoulos. Threats inhibit freedom. No one needs to be threatening other people for attending an event or coming to speak on campus. Intimidation is not–and never will be–a solution. If people want to protest, they can, but once they start threatening or finding methods to hinder other people’s freedom of expression (i.e. blocking people from going into events), it can no longer be tolerated.

What’s even more shocking is that the campus could not provide Coulter with proper protection! This further justifies the threats sent out by some of these protesters and does nothing to help the situation on the campus, which recently experienced a chaotic mass left-wing vs right-wing protest dubbed the Battle for Berkeley. The protest was riddled in hysteria and violence that simply should not be occurring on college campuses. If the campus cannot provide proper protection for a guest speaker, how can they provide proper protection for students? It’s understandable that the campus didn’t want another Milo incident to occur or a Battle for Berkeley Round 2 in the days following her speech, but the campus police–really, the local police–needs to settle these students down and show them they can’t act that way and expect to get away with it. It’s frightening, especially for incoming students, when this level of violence is on college campuses. Why would anyone want to go to college when it’s just another place filled with violence? I definitely wouldn’t be surprised to see the number of applicants to UC Berkeley decrease in the following years if this continues to be the norm on campus.

Riots against Milo Yiannopoulos speech in February (Source: Vimeo)

People like Coulter and Yiannopoulos clearly say things that are meant to be provoking and this can be irksome for certain people. The jokes or comments may go too far or may sound absolutely abhorrent–I mean, “why have these type of people on campus, right? They’re only going to cause trouble.” No, the only trouble here is that we are even considering not allowing individuals to speak on the grounds that it might provoke people or hurt people’s feelings. If these standards were set in place, no one would be able to speak! It is the all-too-common and all-too-true expression “you can’t please everybody” in the flesh. Some people are obviously much more incendiary when compared to others, but this doesn’t mean they have less of a right to freedom of speech.

Once upon a time, UC Berkeley was the head of the free speech movement in the 60’s. Fighting for freedom of speech on college campuses, not against it. Students, during a time also filled with political disarray, fought to remove the ban on political activities on campus (yeah, political expression was a no-no on campus! Crazy, right?). These students, while at times radical, made a much larger and beneficial impact on the future of free speech on college campuses. Now, political organizations thrive on college campuses along with protest. Unfortunately, as mentioned before, many of these protests get out of hand with threats, riots, blockades, etc. UC Berkeley led the free speech movement, and now it rejects the free speech movement. Talk about a lack of self-awareness! If there’s anything we learned from the past, though, it’s that history repeats itself. Perhaps, there is still hope that UC Berkeley will become a haven for free speech once again, holding guest speakers of all different viewpoints.

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Free Speech University