I am not exactly a fan of professional provocateurs such as conservative author Ann Coulter, embroiled this week in a dispute over whether she will be allowed to speak at the University of California at Berkeley. The same is true of her more overt comrade in arms, neo-Nazi white racist Richard Spencer, who was allowed to speak at Auburn University Tuesday night only after a federal judge intervened and ordered the university to do so.
In both cases, university officials attempted to bar the controversial speakers by citing fears that their appearance would inspire violent protests. But in both cases — in almost all such cases — such reactions are wrong. Government officials are not only obligated to allow such speech on college campuses and elsewhere, they have a positive duty under the First Amendment to ensure that the safety of those speaking is not compromised in any way.
That is even true — especially true — if the speakers and their message offend every sensibility.
It has to be acknowledged that in a majority of these college-campus cases, those whose free-speech rights are being threatened by mob action are conservative, while those demanding that speakers be silenced and banned from campus are generally liberal. Such actions contradict and undermine the very philosophy that the protesters claim to espouse.
Barack Obama, for example, probably feels much the same as I do about Coulter and Spencer and the type of hatred they inspire and then feed upon. But in an interview a couple of years ago during another spate of campus free-speech incidents, the then-president got it exactly right:
“We also have these values of free speech, and it’s not free speech in the abstract. The purpose of that kind of free speech is to make sure that we are forced to use argument and reason and words in making our democracy work. And, you know, you don’t have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas. Just out-argue them. Beat ’em. Make the case as to why they’re wrong. Win over adherents. That’s how things work in a democracy.
“And I do worry if young people start getting trained to think that if somebody says something I don’t like, if somebody says something that hurts my feelings, that my only recourse is to shut them up, avoid them, push them away, call on a higher power to protect me from that. … Does that put more of a burden on minority students, or gay students, or Jewish students, or others in a majority that may be blind to history and blind to their hurt? It may put a slightly higher burden on them. But you’re not going to make the kinds of deep changes in society that those students want without taking it on in a full and clear and courageous way.”
Protest is fine; protest is indeed mandatory when confronted by hateful rhetoric. But a movement or society that justifies the shouting down of unpopular voices robs itself of its legitimacy. It is an act of fear, not of strength, an attempt to use brute force to accomplish what words, ideas, rationality and decency can and should accomplish much more effectively.