Berkley’s Current Free Speech Problem

So, it seems that we now have a Free Speech case going before a federal court because Berkeley has refused to let Ann Coulter speak on the date she was scheduled due to security concerns.

In my opinion, the student groups who brought it are going to win, and win big. And if they don’t, it will be a terrible precedent for the First Amendment.

To illustrate this, let’s create a hypothetical: Imagine if Dr. Martin Luther King wanted to give a speech or hold a demonstration on a publicly available space on the campus of (oh, let’s just say) Ole Miss university in 1962 through a local chapter of the NAACP. Let’s pretend that Ole Miss said previously said that he could use that space, but only if he paid a fee for the “necessary security” of his “personal safety,” or if they changed the date or venue of his pre-planned event to an inconvenient date or place, for those same “security” reasons.

No matter how legitimate the security concerns are, this would obviously be bad. The man had a right to speak there, and we can’t let racist threats or an unsympathetic administration keep him from having his event on that campus. Just because speech is inconvenient for a public institution, that doesn’t mean you can stop it from happening due to “cost” reasons.

Obviously this would be a restriction of Dr. King’s freedom of speech. A private institution may restrict him, but not a public one. It’s the same for Ann Coulter and the conservative groups who are suing.

“But… but…. Ann Coulter isn’t Dr. King,” you may claim, “And the Young America Foundation isn’t the same as the NAACP!” And of course you are right. She is not the same person, and I don’t even believe she retains any of the same moral status as Dr. King, either.

But that means nothing. The law does not care and the comparison is valid. In fact, I bet Ann Coulter is just about as unpopular in Berkeley’s community and campus as Dr. King would have been in 1962 Mississippi. And the First Amendment does not care about how correct your speech is, or how hurtful the speaker’s words are. I bet Dr. King’s words to the “silent” white religious leaders were hurtful to them. Doesn’t matter.

And let’s not even begin to explain the trouble of the government or courts making distinctions among speech acts based on the moral authority of the message. Who cares if Ann Coulter is controversial or says crazy and ridiculous things. (She does.) That’s just asking for tyranny.

Now, this says nothing about the benefit or public good of Coulter’s planned remarks. There also may be a good case, in both the legal realm and by common sense, for limiting the pure “open forum” nature of public universities these days. However, we can not rewrite the facts on this one. It is what it is, and the case has been brought.

Berkeley has opened itself up to the full force of the First Amendment. The battle to let Ann Coulter speak is now for better or worse, and thanks to the choices of Berkeley and their idea of “Academic Freedom,” the same battle for the First Amendment.

So which is more expensive, Berkeley? The damages of a successful free speech lawsuit, replacing those broken windows yet again, or the inexplicably under-utilized tactic, that both Berkeley and other colleges have avoided, of expelling students who cause a ruckus at campus events and not waiting to use police to remove individuals who purposefully disrupt the peace and good order of a planned speech?

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