Today, Ann Coulter announced that she will no longer attempt to speak at the University of California, Berkeley tomorrow, Thursday, April 27, because of safety concerns. This latest success for those willing to threaten or engage in violence in order to silence a campus speaker establishes a genuinely dangerous precedent.
Public colleges and universities have a legal duty to protect First Amendment rights. They also have a responsibility to do their best to protect all those present on campus from threats to their physical safety. But curtailing the rights of a speaker in the name of safety is wrong unless absolutely necessary, and canceling a speech must be the very last resort. Otherwise, restricting or silencing a speaker is simply a capitulation to violence or threats.
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.
In the wake of the violence at UC Berkeley on Feb. 1, we at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) counseled patience, given that UC Berkeley professed to have been caught off-guard and that it promised an investigation into what happened. Nearly two months later, and after multiple incidents of political violence in the adjoining City of Berkeley, the university still appears to be unprepared to ensure the safety of a controversial speaker, attendees, or peaceful protesters.
Moving forward, UC Berkeley must be properly prepared to host and protect speakers of all stripes. FIRE also calls for UC Berkeley’s promised investigation to go forward with thoroughness and transparency, and that its findings be made public without delay. The health of our democracy demands no less.
Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org