Campus must embrace free speech principles

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On Nov. 20, conservative bestselling author and political commentator Ann Coulter spoke on campus, reigniting existing campus debates on the subjects of free speech and what qualifies as peaceful protest. In 2017, Coulter was unable to speak on campus, owing to security concerns and scheduling problems with the administration. This time, Berkeley College Republicans, or BCR, was able to work successfully with UCPD and staff at Cal Performances to host Coulter without any major disruptions at the event. Unfortunately, both before and after the event, the occasionally violent attempt to block attendees from entering the venue in Wheeler Hall was masqueraded as a peaceful protest.

One of the arguments against hosting Coulter was that she would be given a platform to spread her controversial opinions unchallenged. The only challenge this argument faced was the fact that it was manifestly untrue. Weeks before the event, BCR made it clear that Coulter would spend close to 45 minutes taking questions from the audience, as was the case at the event. Attendees across the political spectrum were able to ask questions, both friendly and hostile, to the speaker without censorship. After her speech, Coulter took questions until she was told by security personnel that it was time to wrap it up.

Peeking beneath the surface, one realizes that there appears to be a growing faction in the UC Berkeley community that does not simply object to conservatives speaking unchallenged — they seem to reject the prospect of conservatives speaking on this campus at all. The rationale behind this theory, echoed by groups such as Berkeley Antifa and By Any Means Necessary, or BAMN, is that conservatism by its nature threatens marginalized communities. Hence certain benevolent censorship of conservative voices is necessary to shield those communities from harm. This line of thinking is especially repugnant because it portrays certain students of an institution of higher education as possessing sensibilities so fragile that they need to suppress unfashionable speech to make them feel safe.

 On a broader scale, it shows why freedom itself is near-impossible to maintain. For a society to allow the expression of opinions it finds morally abhorrent, it must rest assured that the bonds that hold it together will not be frayed by such speech. For decades, the United States has displayed such confidence in its intrinsic commitment to the value of freedom and has allowed persons with unpopular opinions to express themselves without criminal repercussions. The recent events at UC Berkeley might indicate that we do not have faith in free speech. As organizers of the event, members of BCR had to sneak into the venue from an alternate entrance to Wheeler Hall after jumping over a security barricade. Once at the front, the plight of the rest of the attendees was visible. Shouting protesters had blocked the main entrance to Wheeler Hall, shrinking the space available to attendees as they were surrounded by swarms of individuals urging them to go back home. The protesters also formed a human chain to block members of the local community who had paid money to see Coulter speak from attending the event.

 All of a sudden, the concerns expressed by the protesters in the days leading up to the event started to sound hollow. They claimed to be working to save marginalized communities from the tyranny of Coulter’s speech by physically barring those who wanted to attend the speech. They claimed to be fighting fascism by allegedly using physical force to prevent people from attending a speech on a public campus. In this sense, their existence was entirely paradoxical.

Once inside the venue, a number of attendees recounted their experiences waiting in line to get inside. Some said they saw people having their tickets snatched from their hands and torn up by protesters, many of whom allegedly posed as event organizers, which prohibited attendees from getting past security. A couple of senior citizens allegedly mentioned that they were punched in the gut by protesters wearing black face masks. Many others complained about feeling physically threatened while waiting outside to enter the venue. Suddenly, the motives of the self-proclaimed protectors of the marginalized began to appear less benign.

After the event, it was impossible to ignore the following inferences. For one, as much as those on both extremes of the political spectrum would like to deny it, UC Berkeley is not ideologically homogeneous. There exists a significant contingent of students and members of the local community who wish to listen to politically impactful speakers like Ann Coulter, and they should be allowed to do so. Secondly, those who attempt to block conservative speaking events often seem to do so in order to attract the undivided attention of local news media and campus authorities, seemingly using concern for marginalized communities as a facade. The Coulter event was an opportunity for the UC Berkeley community to reject the perception it has garnered as a campus seemingly unfavorable to free speech. Unfortunately, after last month’s events, it is likely this perception will harden.

. In 2017, Coulter was unable to speak on campus, owing to security concerns and scheduling problems with the administration. This time, Berkeley College Republicans, or BCR, was able to work successfully with UCPD and staff at Cal Performances to host Coulter without any major disruptions at the event. Unfortunately, both before and after the event, the occasionally violent attempt to block attendees from entering the venue in Wheeler Hall was masqueraded as a peaceful protest.

One of the arguments against hosting Coulter was that she would be given a platform to spread her controversial opinions unchallenged. The only challenge this argument faced was the fact that it was manifestly untrue. Weeks before the event, BCR made it clear that Coulter would spend close to 45 minutes taking questions from the audience, as was the case at the event. Attendees across the political spectrum were able to ask questions, both friendly and hostile, to the speaker without censorship. After her speech, Coulter took questions until she was told by security personnel that it was time to wrap it up.

Peeking beneath the surface, one realizes that there appears to be a growing faction in the UC Berkeley community that does not simply object to conservatives speaking unchallenged — they seem to reject the prospect of conservatives speaking on this campus at all. The rationale behind this theory, echoed by groups such as Berkeley Antifa and By Any Means Necessary, or BAMN, is that conservatism by its nature threatens marginalized communities. Hence certain benevolent censorship of conservative voices is necessary to shield those communities from harm. This line of thinking is especially repugnant because it portrays certain students of an institution of higher education as possessing sensibilities so fragile that they need to suppress unfashionable speech to make them feel safe.

 On a broader scale, it shows why freedom itself is near-impossible to maintain. For a society to allow the expression of opinions it finds morally abhorrent, it must rest assured that the bonds that hold it together will not be frayed by such speech. For decades, the United States has displayed such confidence in its intrinsic commitment to the value of freedom and has allowed persons with unpopular opinions to express themselves without criminal repercussions. The recent events at UC Berkeley might indicate that we do not have faith in free speech. As organizers of the event, members of BCR had to sneak into the venue from an alternate entrance to Wheeler Hall after jumping over a security barricade. Once at the front, the plight of the rest of the attendees was visible. Shouting protesters had blocked the main entrance to Wheeler Hall, shrinking the space available to attendees as they were surrounded by swarms of individuals urging them to go back home. The protesters also formed a human chain to block members of the local community who had paid money to see Coulter speak from attending the event.

 All of a sudden, the concerns expressed by the protesters in the days leading up to the event started to sound hollow. They claimed to be working to save marginalized communities from the tyranny of Coulter’s speech by physically barring those who wanted to attend the speech. They claimed to be fighting fascism by allegedly using physical force to prevent people from attending a speech on a public campus. In this sense, their existence was entirely paradoxical.

Once inside the venue, a number of attendees recounted their experiences waiting in line to get inside. Some said they saw people having their tickets snatched from their hands and torn up by protesters, many of whom allegedly posed as event organizers, which prohibited attendees from getting past security. A couple of senior citizens allegedly mentioned that they were punched in the gut by protesters wearing black face masks. Many others complained about feeling physically threatened while waiting outside to enter the venue. Suddenly, the motives of the self-proclaimed protectors of the marginalized began to appear less benign.

After the event, it was impossible to ignore the following inferences. For one, as much as those on both extremes of the political spectrum would like to deny it, UC Berkeley is not ideologically homogeneous. There exists a significant contingent of students and members of the local community who wish to listen to politically impactful speakers like Ann Coulter, and they should be allowed to do so. Secondly, those who attempt to block conservative speaking events often seem to do so in order to attract the undivided attention of local news media and campus authorities, seemingly using concern for marginalized communities as a facade. The Coulter event was an opportunity for the UC Berkeley community to reject the perception it has garnered as a campus seemingly unfavorable to free speech. Unfortunately, after last month’s events, it is likely this perception will harden.

Rudra Reddy is the external vice president of Berkeley College Republicans and a former columnist for The Daily Californian.