Ann Coulter must have known what she was getting into.
About two weeks ago, students at UC Berkeley threatened violence when Berkeley College Republicans invited the conservative pundit to speak on campus. Cowed by these threats, the administration refused to accommodate her original speaking slot, and she eventually canceled her appearance.
Coulter was the victim of the so-called heckler’s veto, or the ability of large, organized groups to suppress unwelcome speech, sometimes by threatening violence.
It has proven an effective speech-suppressing tool in Berkeley. Administrators also canceled an event headlined by Coulter’s fellow conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos in February, citing similar security concerns.
As Berkeley’s students and administrators have soured the First Amendment, UCLA seems to be following their example.
In February, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education assigned UCLA a yellow light, indicating that campus restrictions on free speech “too easily (encourage) administrative abuse and arbitrary application.” In other words, administrators have a range of powerful tools at their disposal to suppress speech, such as the power to investigate organizations and individuals accused of violating their hate speech code.
The hostile atmosphere for free speech on campus raises the possibility that the next time a controversial or unpopular speaker like Coulter is invited to Westwood, the heckler’s veto may make an unwelcome trip south. It would be wrong to allow violent protesters to suppress speech, even if many Bruins may find that speech offensive or ignorant.
The very real possibility that the heckler’s veto could be exercised in Westwood means that the UCLA administration must issue a statement reaffirming its institutional commitment to free speech and guaranteeing security for every public figure invited to speak on campus.
Such a statement will go a long way toward restoring a healthy atmosphere for free speech on campus. But this commitment must be backed up by substantive policy changes that compel administrators to protect speech by force when necessary. Coulter may not be entitled to protection from criticism, but she is surely entitled to protection from violence.
That is not to say that opponents of Coulter’s visit to Berkeley do not raise important points. The tendency of hate speech to cause tangible harm to vulnerable minority communities is well-documented. Surely it is inappropriate to “dress up vicious psychological harm” to minority communities “in the language of academic political theory,” as Brian Leiter, a legal scholar at the University of Chicago, has suggested. But suppressing the free speech rights of prominent racists and anti-feminists may well provide those individuals with the sort of attention they crave. As Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic has asserted, excessive censorship “guarantees that bigots like Coulter will be seen by many as occupying a moral high ground.” And more importantly, free speech is too critical to a healthy academic environment to be overridden by these concerns, legitimate as they are.
In fact, allowing protesters to erode free speech on campus would violate UCLA’s educational mission. The university’s stated purpose is “the creation, dissemination, preservation and application of knowledge for the betterment of our global society.”
To this end, UCLA has pledged to safeguard “open access to information, free and lively debate conducted with mutual respect for individuals and freedom from intolerance.” “Free and lively debate” surely makes no allowance for censorship, even in the case of offensive speech. The hate and vitriol Coulter peddles is certainly abhorrent. But restricting it would be still more abhorrent. Coulter should not be censored, but responded to with reasoned arguments in the context of the free exchange of ideas the First Amendment facilitates on this campus.
The university’s educational mission dictates that ideas are to be answered with ideas, rather than with violence. When the next Ann Coulter visits Westwood, UCLA must put free speech first and the heckler’s veto last.