It’s not easy to be a nonpartisan political organization at UC Berkeley. The university’s campus should be a dynamic marketplace of ideas where students can be exposed to different beliefs. The city of Berkeley presents us with a market in which different ideas can be difficult to rigorously discuss in the absence of alternate ideologies.
Our organization, BridgeUSA, invited Ann Coulter to speak before a body of primarily liberally minded college students about the issue of illegal immigration. Though we tried, it’s a difficult task to justify Ann Coulter’s presence, author of “How to Talk to a Liberal if You Must,” to one of the most liberal cities in California.
It’s no surprise that the issue of illegal immigration hits close to home for many members of the UC Berkeley community. Berkeley, a sanctuary city, not only has a large undocumented student population, but also has a large liberal student populace. For this reason, the invitation of Coulter presented views that are directly opposite the dominating viewpoints that are held on the Berkeley campus. She’s repeatedly called for the defunding of sanctuary cities like Berkeley. She earnestly supports Trump’s plan to build a wall on the southern border. And she is staunchly opposed to amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Her views have attracted a large following, and she has written 12 bestselling books. That following is all but absent in Berkeley, but we felt that this event would provide an exciting opportunity for political opposites to productively challenge one another through debate. That is, after all, the reason BridgeUSA was founded in the first place.
Prominent views should never be voiced in isolation. That’s why half of this event is dedicated to a debate-style question-and-answer session with rebuttals, where a back-and-forth dialogue can occur. On an equal playing field, Coulter would field tough questions about her views from students in the audience. The productive way to fight what one might perceive as bad ideas is with better ideas, and we are providing an opportunity to facilitate challenge while maintaining standards of constructive discourse that have been absent at other conservative speakers’ events.
To fans of Coulter, few as they might be at UC Berkeley, this is a chance for their ideas to be made more visible. She was the choice of conservative campus groups, and we honored their request. And to those who disagree with Coulter, we feel that this event provides an excellent opportunity for them to represent the Berkeley community in an interaction that will reach a national audience. More than anything, BridgeUSA is endeavoring to create a national example for what free discourse and the questioning of ideas should look like.
BridgeUSA at Berkeley was created with the stated goal of bridging the political divide. What we saw when the protests surrounding the Milo Yiannopoulos event at UC Berkeley turned violent, as undergraduate students at the University of California Berkeley, was a complete breakdown of constructive discourse between disparate political groups. We felt that we had the opportunity and obligation to step in and try to mediate more productive conversation. To this end, our organization has hosted successful forum events. At these events, students are allowed to freely, calmly, and substantively express their opinions as they pertain to divisive political issues.
Though student voices are important, we feel that students also have the right to hear and challenge the political opinions of more public figures. UC Berkeley is the premier public university in the world. Its students are entitled to the best education possible, and we are attempting to afford them a diversified set of public voices so as to best inform students’ opinions. We contacted conservative and liberal groups on campus, who gave us lists of public figures whom they felt best represented their opinions. We then reached out to those public figures to speak on campus. The speakers we invited were Maria Echaveste, on April 17, and Ann Coulter 10 days thereafter.
We’re not going to beat around the bush and somehow claim that we didn’t anticipate any backlash. We did. We recognize that Ann Coulter is a divisive figure. But the villain here is not Coulter, nor is it the university or its students. It is those who seek to smite the free expression of ideas on a university campus. Black Bloc, Antifa, BAMN, whatever you want to call them: all they can accomplish is letting reprehensible ideas fester unchallenged in the darker corners where we cannot adequately confront them. To conservatives, they steal the valuable right to free expression; to liberals, they steal the valuable right to challenge conservatives.
We also think that Coulter’s ideas must necessarily be heard by students at this campus, if anything, so that they can meet challenge. When we do not allow Ann Coulter to speak on our campus, it does not magically put some bar of censorship over her mouth. She can, and clearly is, going to speak her mind in the public setting. Ann Coulter appeared with Tucker Carlson on April 19 to disparage our university’s name to millions of viewers. Her ideas have an audience, and just because we are not a part of that audience does not mean she lacks sway.
Among her own crowd, Ann Coulter has free reign to speak to her supporters unopposed. For those that disagree with her, the fact that so many people in this nation align themselves with her views is a reality that must be confronted. And confronted through the challenge of ideas in the equal playing field of debate and discussion. The UC Berkeley community can provide meaningful challenge.
And so, while our university does not endorse the ideas Ann Coulter touts, our organization stands by our choice to invite her.
Pranav Jandhyala is a campus freshman and the founder of BridgeUSA.