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[UPDATED] A message from FIRE’s president: UC Berkeley and the state of free speech on campus

Update (4:25 pm, EDT): The New York Times reports that the University of California, Berkeley will allow Ann Coulter to speak on campus May 2, after initially cancelling her planned April 27 appearance.

FIRE will continue to investigate the details of this developing story.

We at FIRE have watched the situation on campus with growing alarm, particularly at the birthplace of the free speech movement: the University of California, Berkeley.

When the riots on Feb. 1 ended a planned speech by former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley, we condemned the violence. However, we tried to be cautious in our statements about the actions of the Berkeley administration, as it seemed plausible that the campus police were simply overwhelmed by the number of protesters and the intensity and scale of the violence. But in the weeks following the incident, Berkeley appears to have done nothing to prevent events like the Feb. 1 riots from happening again.

Since that time, the Berkeley College Republicans’ property has been destroyed, the group cancelled a speech by conservative activist and Berkeley alumnus David Horowitz after the administration threw up numerous roadblocks, and now it has been told that conservative commentator Ann Coulter may not speak as planned due to the danger posed by potentially violent protesters.

This is a chilling and dangerous precedent.

The Berkeley administration is incentivizing anyone who doesn’t want a particular speaker to be heard to threaten (or even engage in) acts of violence. This all but guarantees that speakers who are controversial on a particular campus will be silenced, and teaches a generation of students that resorting to violence will be rewarded. Students are learning deeply illiberal lessons. I can think of few things that are more corrosive to higher education or a pluralistic democracy.

Anyone who responds to speech with violence should be prosecuted. So far, to our knowledge, nobody has been charged at Middlebury College, and possibly only one person has been charged in the Berkeley riots.

When students physically block access to speeches or shout down speakers to prevent them from being heard, they should likewise be punished. Failing to address these disruptions grants an ongoing heckler’s veto to would-be censors. This is inimical to both freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus.

There is a reason nobody says, “If you want to stop a bully, give him everything he wants.” Failure to address violent responses to speech only encourages more violence, while turning great institutions like the University of California, Berkeley, into environments where what can be said — and therefore, what can be taught — is dictated by a minority of violent students and other protesters.

To put it in stark terms, not taking a stand against violent protesters is eventually going to get someone killed.

FIRE is continuing to investigate the situation at Berkeley and will have further updates soon.

— Greg Lukianoff, FIRE President and CEO

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