Ann Coulter and the Berkeley Crisis

I disagree with virtually everything conservative TV commentator and author Ann Coulter stands for, but I believe strongly in the First Amendment and free speech and, in that regard, I find the administrators of the University of California, Berkeley, cowards at best and unworthy to call themselves true educators.

 
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For those just emerging from under a rock, the school initially agreed to have Ms. Coulter speak on campus (she was invited by a conservative student group), then the school canceled her speech out of fear of student violence from protesting liberals; and then, in the face of said protests, stated that they would reschedule her but didn’t have a safe forum for her, then offered her a public plaza, etc. It was a dizzying display of spinelessness, in the midst of which the initial group that extended the invitation in the first place reneged on its invitation. Moreover, as someone who makes his living managing crises for companies and major universities, as well as helping clients avoid crises, I was intrigued by how these erstwhile academicians and administrative pencil pushers took a nothing event and blew it into a national headline-grabbing crisis by trying to practice “political correctness.”

Perhaps the most embarrassing part of this charade is that for so many years Berkeley was considered the epicenter – if not the actual birthplace – of the Free Speech Movement going back decades. In short, after the student conservative group extended the original invitation, liberals – and I skew that way – took umbrage and staged protests against her appearance. And in the face of such unrest, the Berkeley nabobs folded like cheap suits. Who’s running that school? Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff?

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Ms. Coulter is a regular fixture on college campuses, without bloodshed, and the more controversial she is, the more books she sells. This has been a good week for her.

How do other schools handle such sticky situations?

This past summer, the University of Chicago caused quite a national stir when it sent a welcoming letter to incoming freshmen that laid down the law when it said that a university was a place for an exchange of all ideas, and it was not going to issue so-called PC “trigger warnings” whenever an extreme speaker was invited to campus, or a controversial topic was scheduled to be discussed in class. The university is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it said, and it wasn’t about to change in the face of any threat of protest.

The University of Chicago – home to more Nobel prize winners (89 at last count) than any other school in the world – is no stranger to controversial speakers.

“Eighty years ago, a student organization at the University of Chicago invited William Z. Foster, the Communist Party’s candidate for President, to lecture on campus. This triggered a storm of protest from critics both on and off campus. To those who condemned the University for allowing the event, University President Robert M. Hutchins responded that ‘our students … should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself.’ He insisted that the ‘cure’ for ideas we oppose ‘lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition.’ On a later occasion, Hutchins added that ‘free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, [and] that without it they cease to be universities. This incident captures both the spirit and the promise of the University of Chicago.”*

And this summer’s letter to incoming freshmen merely reinforced that stance in script writ large. Berkeley can learn a lot from UChicago.

For those who disagree with Ms. Coulter – and their numbers are legion – the most effective thing they can do is simply not attend her speeches. An empty hall is their biggest and most effective weapon, not mealy-mouthed protests and spineless cancellations. But for now, without even clearing her throat, Ms. Coulter has become a cause celebre, thanks to the cowardly lions of UC Berkeley and the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot crisis the school caused.

* University of Chicago, “Statement on Principles of Free Expression,” July 2012.