Right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter has cancelled her plan to speak tomorrow at Sproul Plaza at U.C. Berkeley, on the very spot at which the Free Speech Movement was launched more than 50 years ago. She was supposed to talk about immigration, (of great importance to the academic community) and event planners had hoped there would be a dialogue. It was an on-again off-again appearance, ultimately cancelled because the university understandably couldn’t guarantee security in the unrestricted access, outdoor setting.
Publicity about U.C. Berkeley’s resistance to the Coulter appearance was an open invitation to outsiders – notably violent black ski mask anarchists – to come on campus and agitate. At least having her in a school building would have permitted metal detectors and other security measures. That was not to be.
This intolerance of diversity of thought echoes Brandeis University’s cancellation of commencement speaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali two years ago, because Muslim and other students were critical of Hirsi Alli’s memoir “Infidel,” in which she decried her upbringing in Somalia, being subjected to genital mutilation, and her parents’ attempt to marry her off as a child.
I agree with Ann Coulter about nothing, but the reluctance of colleges and universities to present controversial speakers and ideas is profoundly disturbing. Why do students cough up tens of thousands of dollars if not to learn how to deal with people and thoughts outside of their comfort zones? Today, it’s the conservatives likely to be frozen out; a generation ago, on many campuses it was those on the left, with their opposition to the Vietnam War.
Debates about controversy in the marketplace of ideas aren’t just a matter of who comes on campus. Regrettably there have been too many attempts to stifle uncomfortable ideas among members of the college community and even in classes. Snowflakes are no longer a meteorological phenomenon. The term now applies to students who must have their tender psyches protected from ideas that make them uncomfortable. Again, how do they learn how to get along in the real world if every violent or sexual idea requires a trigger warning?
Recently, an editorial in the newspaper of Wellesley College, my alma mater, dismissed the importance of maintaining free speech, however objectionable that speech may be. The editorial was roundly criticized, deservedly so. Finding the sweet spot between political correctness to protect people’s feelings and sustaining vigorous debate among conflicting ideas is a challenge on many campuses today, and is a disturbing trend. Seeing a newspaper editorial embracing First Amendment limitations is particularly troubling. Fortunately, college president Paula Johnson wrote to the community about the importance of robust dialogue on campus. “Active, open debate enriches and illuminates,” she said. “It is fundamental to how we create new ways of seeing and thinking.” She got that right.
So too did the University of Chicago’s dean of students John Ellison last fall when he sent a letter to incoming students critical of trigger warnings as inimical to freedom of expression. That doesn’t mean freedom to harass or threaten. It does mean freedom to debate and disagree.
Civility is important in rational discourse. But absence of civility is not an acceptable rationale for ending discourse altogether. It would be healthier if more colleges and universities understood this.