Berkeley paradox: Birthplace of free speech now offended by it

The uproar over Ann Coulter’s scheduled talk underscores a shift in public understanding about freedom of expression – particularly on college campuses. The talk, set for April 27, has been called off.

Published April 26, 2017

What started as a debate over conservative pundit Ann Coulter‘s scheduled talk at the University of California, Berkeley, has become a nationwide showdown over freedom of expression, with a lawsuit filed and riots in the offing.

Ms. Coulter’s brand of polemic conservatism – often associated with white nationalism and the “alt-right” movement – has come up against left-wing elements who refuse to tolerate such ideas.

“We don’t accept the right of immigrant-basher bigots to come to Berkeley and help propel Trump’s deportation machine to make it more hostile for human beings who are here,” says Hoku Jeffrey, a Berkeley graduate and representative of By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a left-wing group that participated in previous protests that grew violent. “There is nothing that makes that OK.”

In insisting Coulter be allowed to speak, conservatives are asserting the right to speak freely. In protesting her presence, groups like BAMN are wielding the right to assembly.

“You have these two groups that are ideologically opposed to each other that are both trying to express their First Amendment rights,” says Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute in Washington. “People need to be reminded that free speech rights are indivisible. When you try to silence one group, the precedent you’re setting will be used against you.”

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