Free speech at Berkeley

As of this writing, the University of California at Berkeley is still planning to host a speech by conservative provocateur Ann Coulter. This is after the university canceled Coulter’s planned appearance at the invitation of a Republican student group, citing security concerns. The move brought to mind the violence in February that preceded the cancellation of an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos — another right-wing mouthpiece and darling of the alt-right Breitbart News.

The threat of violence turns UC Berkeley’s decision into something more than a question of free speech. Now the inquiry focuses on the dilemma of how society should balance speech with safety and freedom with security. And there is something remarkably ironic that the debate is playing out on the very campus that heralded the free speech movement in the 1960s.

We don’t believe that either Coulter or Yiannopoulos contribute constructively to dialogue in this country. And had they not been invited to speak in the first instance, very few people would have missed them, and Berkeley would have been fine. But they were invited — in a procedure endorsed by the university — even if doing so was designed as a means to provoke local leftists and anarchists who believe that they are justified in attacking “fascists” by any means necessary. The leftists took the bait when Yiannopoulos came to speak, instigating 1933-type violence — wearing masks, they broke windows and set fires — and leading officials to close down the school. The leftists now threaten to do so again, in reaction to the presence of Coulter.

Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, invoking fears of a repeat performance of criminal behavior by protesters, canceled Coulter’s appearance days before reissuing the invitation. “Our police department has made it clear that they have very specific intelligence regarding threats that could pose a grave danger to the speaker, attendees and those who may wish to lawfully protest the event,” he said at the time.

A couple of days later, something changed Dirks’ mind. Perhaps it was that canceling Coulter’s appearance turned her into a free-speech victim. Whatever it was that prompted the policy change, if the far right is going to provoke and the far left is going to react with violence, then the university is going to have to figure out how to deal with that inevitable confrontation.

We trust that security personnel and police will be prepared and present in sufficient force to deter violence and to assure that the campus remains calm and safe, even if provoked by a hate monger like Ann Coulter and the anarchists seeking to do battle with her.

We have said it time and again: The antidote to abhorrent speech is more speech. Anything else, and the flame-throwers win.

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