After days of insisting otherwise, Ann Coulter will not speak at the University of California, Berkeley, campus Thursday, the latest development in a now national controversy over the balance between free speech and security on college campuses.
Coulter’s talk at Berkeley was canceled amid threats of violence and no guarantee from local police they could keep her and attendees safe. Conservative advocacy group Young America’s Foundation, which helped fund the event, dropped its support and said in a statement it would not “jeopardize the safety of its staff or students.”
Despite Coulter’s announcement she will not appear, the university anticipates and has prepared for similar riots that have roiled the campus in recent months.
This outcome has disappointed free speech advocates, many of whom have raged against allowing even the potential of protests, some of which have recently turned violent at universities, to block divisive speakers. Many have accused Berkeley of stifling conservative views, a growing complaint of many institutions.
“It is ironic that UC Berkeley, known to many Americans as the birthplace of the free speech movement, is now leading the vanguard to silence conservative speech on campus,” Harmeet K. Dhillon, an attorney for Young America’s Foundation, wrote to the university. “Surely a public institution of higher learning should be a crucible of challenging ideas and thought, not a kindergarten where wards of the state are fed a steady diet of pasteurized pablum.”
But Berkeley officials, in calling off Coulter’s speech, had reason for their caution. In February, the institution erupted over a planned speech by ex-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, with protesters lighting fires and destroying campus property, only one in a series of clashes at the campus and in the surrounding area over the past several months.
Administrators said they received word of threats that would pose “grave danger” to Coulter and attendees on the originally scheduled date, Thursday. They offered to host Coulter May 2, when they could find a location at which security could be assured.
This did little to satisfy the firebrand conservative author, who blasted the university for scheduling her when classes weren’t being held. (May 2 is during the period when students are studying for finals.)
Groups on both sides of the political spectrum were galvanized after Coulter withdrew, and announced online their intentions to still come to campus Thursday.
Gavin McInnes, former Vice editor and co-founder, now leader of a right-wing group called Proud Boys, wrote on Twitter that he would speak on campus, along with conservative provocateurs Lauren Southern, Faith Goldy and Brittany Pettibone.
“We’re very concerned,” university spokesman Dan Mogulof said in a phone interview. “This is a university, not a battleground.”
Captain Alex Yao, of the University of California Police, said at a Wednesday press conference that judging by social media postings and information provided to law enforcement, some who will visit campus Thursday intend to commit violence. The campus will see a “highly visible” police presence, Yao said.
“We’re going to have a low tolerance for any sort of violence on campus,” Yao said.
The university has not canceled classes Thursday.
Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of Berkeley, sent a lengthy letter to the community Wednesday, writing that university needed to weigh free speech rights with campus safety.
“The strategies necessary to address these evolving threats are also evolving, but the simplistic view of some — that our police department can simply step in and stop violent confrontations whenever they occur — ignores reality,” Dirks wrote. “Protecting public safety in these circumstances requires a multifaceted approach. This approach must take into account the use of ‘time, place and manner’ guidelines, devised according to the specific threats presented. Because threats or strategic concerns may differ, so must our approach. In all cases, however, we only seek to ensure the successful staging of free speech rights; we make no effort to control or restrict the content of expression, regardless of differing political views.”
Lawyers for Young America’s Foundation and the Berkeley College Republicans — which invited Coulter — sued the university in federal court, claiming the organizations’ First Amendment rights were violated.
Young America’s Foundation won’t drop the lawsuit, according to its Tuesday statement. The group criticized the university for creating a “hostile atmosphere” and for not meeting its demands to provide a space and security for the initially planned date.
Across the nation, institutions are reaping “the terrible fruit” of their tolerance of bad behavior, Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said.
He urged colleges and universities to spend more money on security to send a strong message that free expression won’t be squashed, and to harshly punish those who would interfere with those principles. Though universities have made clear many of the protesters in violent cases are not affiliated with their campuses, Poliakoff doesn’t feel that complicates matters. Just a month prior to his speech at Berkeley, Yiannopoulos’s speech at the University of California, Davis, was shut down by protests, something that Berkeley officials had to recognize, Poliakoff said.
“I don’t think I’m being unfair to Berkeley for saying these wounds are self-inflicted,” he said. “There’s significant work … I think we’ve got to start peeling away the excuses.”
In a statement, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education called for Berkeley to be prepared to “host and protect speakers of all stripes.” FIRE in its statement said it was patient with the university after it was caught off guard by the violence that pre-empted Yiannopoulos’s February speech, however, Berkeley has not followed through with a promised investigation.
“No university may be considered ‘safe’ if speakers voicing unpopular ideas on its campus incur a substantial risk of being physically attacked. A university where people or viewpoints are likely to be opposed with fists rather than argumentation is unworthy of the name. Granting those willing to use violence the power to determine who may speak on campus is an abdication of UC Berkeley’s moral and legal responsibilities under the First Amendment,” the FIRE statement reads.
As recently as Tuesday, Coulter was still vowing to give her talk in Sproul Plaza, an outdoor site at Berkeley famous for protests and free speech, but also one much more difficult to protect compared to a location indoors.
Coulter posted to Twitter Wednesday, calling Berkeley a “thuggish institution” that had snuffed out the “cherished American right of free speech.” She wrote that Berkeley had canceled her talk, and Young America’s Foundation agreed to it.
Mogulof called Coulter’s claim “nonsense.” He added that the Berkeley College Republicans had not followed the usual procedure in booking Coulter and secured a contract with her prior to contacting university officials to arranging a venue.
“We respect and support her First Amendment rights, but you can’t exercise your First Amendment rights in a venue that police can’t protect,” Mogulof said.
A similar scenario to the Coulter drama played out in Alabama recently, at Auburn University, where the institution’s leadership attempted to stop a talk by white nationalist Richard Spencer, a leader in the “alt-right” movement, known for its radical and racist views.
The university said in working with law enforcement, it learned of threats to campus during the time Spencer planned to come. He was able to speak, however, with a federal court’s backing, after the man who invited him sued Auburn and a judge ruled in his favor.
Spencer, who had also pledged to appear on Auburn’s campus regardless of administrators’ stance, wrote on Twitter Wednesday that Coulter should have done the same.
“I’m less angry at @AnnCoulter, who is after all, a woman. But cuckservatives are so contemptible, I don’t know where to begin,” Spencer wrote, using a common alt-right insult, a portmanteau of “cuckold” and “conservative.”
With these new, sometimes dangerous demonstrations, defending large campuses, in particular, has proven difficult, Sue Riseling, executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, recently told Inside Higher Ed. Her organization has been training college and university safety heads how to handle these protests.