Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Did Ann Coulter Really Want To Speak at Berkeley?

A few weeks ago, when Berkeley was slated to have back-to-back appearances by David Horowitz and Ann Coulter, I asked my students if they knew who either one of them was.

For Horowitz, the answer was a universal "no".

For Coulter, the mode answer was also "no", though one student offered that she was "like an older Tomi Lahren?"

My how the mighty have fallen. But of course, even long-since faded stars are entitled to attempt a comeback. So what better way to do so than through a high-profile act of martyrdom? Fortunately, despite their unknown status to the average Berkeley student, the Bay Area has an active "black bloc" community happy to oblige them. And so threats are made, and talks canceled, and somber reflections on illiberal universities published, and Horowitz and Coulter get to bask -- if briefly -- in the glow of being the bold truthsayers too raw for Berkeley snowflakes to handle. A return to the glory days, if you will.

But what if things didn't go according to that script?

Neither Ann Coulter, nor David Horowitz, were prohibited from speaking on campus. In both cases, they were offered a time and a place to speak at Berkeley; in both cases, it was they who declined that invitation. The statement from Chancellor Dirks -- who in my estimation has done a great job navigating very choppy waters on this issue -- provides a useful corrective to the prevailing media narrative and is worth reading in full. But an excerpt helps set the tone:
The strategies necessary to address these evolving threats [to free speech] are also evolving, but the simplistic view of some – that our police department can simply step in and stop violent confrontations whenever they occur – ignores reality.  Protecting public safety in these circumstances requires a multifaceted approach.  This approach must take into account the use of “time, place, and manner” guidelines, devised according to the specific threats presented.  Because threats or strategic concerns may differ, so must our approach.  In all cases, however, we only seek to ensure the successful staging of free speech rights; we make no effort to control or restrict the content of expression, regardless of differing political views. 
This is a University, not a battlefield. We must make every effort to hold events at a time and location that maximizes the chances that First Amendment rights can be successfully exercised and that community members can be protected. While our commitment to freedom of speech and expression remains absolute, we have an obligation to heed our police department’s assessment of how best to hold safe and successful events.
If UCPD believes there is a significant security threat attendant to a particular event, we cannot allow it to be held in a venue with a limited number of exits; in a hall that cannot be cordoned off; in an auditorium with floor to ceiling glass; in any space that does not meet basic safety criteria established by UCPD.  This is the sole reason we could not accommodate Ms. Coulter on April 27th, and the very reason we offered her alternative dates in early May and September, when venues that satisfy safety requirements are available.
Contrary to some press reports and circulating narratives, the UC Berkeley administration did not cancel the Coulter event and has never prohibited Ms. Coulter from coming on campus.  Instead, we received a request to provide a venue on one single day, chosen unilaterally by a student group without any prior consultation with campus administration or law enforcement.  After substantial evaluation and planning by our law enforcement professionals, we were forced to inform the group that, in light of specific and serious security threats that UCPD’s intelligence had identified, there was no campus venue available at a time on that date where the event could be held safely and without disruption.  We offered an alternative date for the event (which was rejected) and offered to work with the group to find dates in the future when the event could occur. Throughout this process our effort has been to support our students’ desire to hold their event safely and successfully. 
Now to be 100%, crystal clear: Violence or disruption, or threats thereof, to prevent Ann Coulter's speech is wrong and unjustifiable (and was unjustifiable when used against Milo). Ditto had Berkeley sought to cancel Coulter's speech outright (which again, it did not do). The people who engage in such violence are engaging in a wrong -- a serious wrong, a wrong that is antithetical to norms of free speech and free inquiry -- even when the subject is someone like Ann Coulter. One can believe that while simultaneously believing that Ann Coulter is a repulsive White supremacist who deserves naught but our scorn. And so the threats that Chancellor Dirks refers to are threats that cut to the heart of a free academic community. They should be investigated, and they should be dealt with.

But UC-Berkeley did not make those threats. UC-Berkeley did not engage in that censorship. And the way Berkeley, as an institution, treated Coulter seems eminently reasonable. Clearly, Berkeley has an interest in ensuring the event goes off safely. Clearly, and as an institution committed to free speech, it has an interest in creating conditions where her speech occurs without incident, obstruction, or unlawful disruption. Clearly, it can impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions to try to limit the damage and obstruction that might be caused by those persons making unjustified threats and promising unlawful riots. Surely this is them taking the responsible course of action, yes?

Placing Ann Coulter "in a venue with a limited number of exits; in a hall that cannot be cordoned off; in an auditorium with floor to ceiling glass" is a recipe for free speech disaster (not to mention the budgetary disaster for Berkeley when the -- quite literal -- damage has been done). And while there are limits to what sorts of venue-restrictions one could impose without violating free speech -- obviously they couldn't stick her in a broom closet and "allow" the speech to proceed freely -- that's not what happened here. Berkeley made a reasonable effort to reasonably accommodate Coulter's speech while reasonably insisting that the speech occur in a time, place, and manner that didn't cause chaos. That's entirely consistent with our free speech tradition. That's Berkeley behaving responsibly in the face of community members who were threatening to behave irresponsibly, even criminally. That's Berkeley seeking to facilitate, not censor, Coulter's speech.

So why is it being interpreted otherwise? The argument seems to be that when Berkeley institutes any sort of specific procedures or guidelines to facilitate the free speech of controversial speakers likely to face illegitimate obstruction, it's "giving in" to threats -- or worse, tacitly endorsing them. To quote my old college buddy Jim Kiner: "This is America. Someone giving a speech shouldn't have to worry about the size of the windows." (Of course, it's not Coulter who has to worry about the windows -- they aren't hers to worry about. Ann Coulter can be blissfully indifferent regarding their fate. It's Berkeley -- the property-owner -- who's concerned, and it seems clearly reasonable for them to take limited steps to ensure that their property isn't destroyed in the wake of their indifferent houseguest's visit).

Can we say that, in a good world, Berkeley wouldn't need to have these procedures for managing threats to outside speakers because everyone would respect everyone else's right to speak unmolested? Yes (though in such a good world nobody would be inviting repulsive trolls like Coulter to speak in the first place). But the Berkeley-blame for all this is strange, bordering on bizarre. In a good world nobody would try to hijack an airplane. Sadly, we don't live in that world, and so the TSA has certain procedures designed to manage the threat of terrorist hijackings while allowing us to travel freely -- procedures we only need because some people behave unlawfully, wrongfully, terroristically. Those procedures can be debated as too lenient or too harsh, but I've yet to hear anyone say that by having them the TSA was tacitly endorsing or normalizing terrorism. Responding to the reality of an unjustified threat is not the same thing as justifying or legitimizing that threat. Berkeley has to live in the world that exists, not the world of its dreams, and when it does so it doesn't endorse our fallen state. Rioters are wrong for rioting, but Berkeley is not wrong for taking reasonable steps to account for living in a world where rioting happens.

Which brings us back to the question in the title: Did Ann Coulter really want to speak at Berkeley? Does she really want Berkeley to succeed in creating a space for her to speak without obstruction, disruption, or incident? I'm dubious. She came to Berkeley because she wanted to be a martyr -- either canceled outright or censorially disrupted. For Berkeley to succeed in offering her a space where none of that would happen thwarts her goals. After all, accepting Berkeley's terms would mean that her speech would likely not be shut down, or disrupted, or even been particularly noteworthy. It would have to attract attention solely by the merits of her ideas. No wonder she found it unacceptable.

This, in fact, is what happened with Horowitz. He too was offered a different venue -- one which promised that his speech would be able to occur freely, without incident or disruption, and receiving only so much attention as was warranted by his fame, merit, and talent. And once that became the deal, his booking agent decided (I know this from first-hand sources) that the new offer to speak -- one which was unlikely to spark massive protests or demonstrations, but would simply allow his talk to occur in peace -- was unworthy of his time. What's the point of coming to Berkeley if you're not going to get run out of town?

And so here were see the horns of the dilemma Berkeley finds itself in. On the one hand, it is facing a community (often not primarily comprised of students) which behaves in ways which are censorial and intolerable towards particular viewpoints (that these viewpoints are fairly characterized as racist ones does not justify said censorship). And so it takes steps to counteract these violent tendencies and ensure that its doors nonetheless remain open to speakers of all sorts, even the most repulsive ones, without incident. But then it discovers that actually, many of these speakers desire nothing more than to be "censored", to be "shut down", to be the proof of the intolerant liberal campus and the censorial lefties who can't handle their ideas. The worst thing that could happen to them is a Berkeley which successfully manages to enable their speech without incident. The whole point is for there to be an "incident". The whole point is to become a martyr.

And so if they're not "censored," they'll just drop out and say they were anyway. And their gullible followers will eat it up.


FranklinS said...

This is ridiculous. Coulter speaks all over the country and has given speeches at hundreds of campuses. She didn't plot for Berkeley to not let her speak - Berkeley plotted to not let her speak. Beyond the victim blaming, you have not shown a grasp of First Amendment law here. It was ghe University's responsibility as a government entity to treat the student group event exactly as it would any other student organization, lest it be guilty of viewpoint discrimination. If that entails, as Ms. Coulter suggested, committing to expel unruly students, and insisting that the police actually use police power to maintain order (rather than standing by during the mayhem at the Milo event, as video clearly depicts occuring), then that's what they have to do!

There is no heckler's or rioter's veto. This is all super-settled case law. There's no more point in arguing about it than about whether the world is round or flat. It's round, and Coulter's free speech rights were violated.

David Schraub said...

(1) Berkeley did not "plot" to not let her speak. Berkeley specifically offered her the opportunity to speak. Coulter rejected that opportunity.

(2) There's no evidence of viewpoint discrimination by Berkeley. It was not her viewpoint which caused them to decide that having her speak "in a venue with a limited number of exits; in a hall that cannot be cordoned off; in an auditorium with floor to ceiling glass" was a bad idea, but rather security concerns rationally related to the preservation of law and order (and enabling her to talk). For example, even if Berkeley was obliged to commit to removing "unruly" students (by which I'm sure you mean students engaged in unlawful disruption, since of course quite a bit of protest even in the venue is itself First Amendment protected), it's sensible that they would say "we so commit, but in order to be able to do that effectively we need to have a room that we can effectively secure". More to the point, there's no evidence that a speaker with a different viewpoint who posed similar security risks would be treated differently.

3) Berkeley exercised no heckler's veto. They imposed reasonable time, place, and manner conditions designed expressly so that Coulter could talk without incident. She decided she did not want to avail herself of the opportunity, then disingenuously cried martyrdom.