On April 19, officials of the University of California Berkeley announced that they were canceling a speech to be given by conservative writer Ann Coulter scheduled for April 27. Then on April 20, facing the prospect of a lawsuit, caught between the First Amendment and the fear of violence, university officials proposed that Coulter’s speech be moved to May 2 — a move she and her supporters quickly rejected, pointing out that there would be no students on campus, as it coincided with a reading period before final exams.
This was a low point for the birthplace of the free-speech movement.
I’ve known Ann Coulter for years, and I’ve gone to great lengths — truly great lengths — to disagree with her. After she published a book called “Godless,” which accused liberalism of being a godless religion, I wrote a book called “Soulless,” which attacked the right-wing church of hate. I even donned her trademark sleeveless black dress, added about 10 inches of long blonde hair and posed for a cover that looked almost as sexy as hers.
We agree on almost nothing, except for the importance of free speech and public discourse. And we have always gotten along just fine.
Last summer, when a reporter went to her for comments about me, she could not have been more gracious. That’s how it should be in a democracy.
Our Founding Fathers understood something that seems to be getting lost in the ugly partisanship that has gripped our country. You don’t deal with speech you don’t like by shutting it down. You deal with it by speaking up yourself. Speech is powerful; it is protected not because it is harmless but because the alternative is even worse. And that alternative is what we’re facing now.
It is not just at Berkeley that this issue is rearing its ugly head. In response to the cancellation of a speech at Claremont-McKenna College by Heather Mac Donald, the president of Pomona College (part of the Claremont Colleges consortium) wrote an open letter defending the principle of free speech. To my shock, frankly, a group of African-American students went on the attack, claiming that “white supremacists” (Mac Donald is a fellow of the conservative Manhattan Institute, not the Klan) have no right to free speech. Come again? Who is supposed to decide who gets to speak? Do these students not understand that it is precisely oppressed minorities who have historically needed the protection of the First Amendment the most? Do they really think that if speech is regulated, they will be the benefi- ciaries? On which planet? Under which president?
For those who disagree with Coulter, shutting down her speech only elevates her position. Instead of speaking before a group of students two weeks before exams, the cancellation has brought her national attention — and brought Berkeley the criticism it must surely have expected.
But blaming Berkeley is the easy way out. One way or another, the great majority of Americans who support the Constitution must stand up to the minority who think violence and censorship is the answer to speech they don’t like. You cannot pick and choose which civil liberties to support, which opinions deserve protection.
As a writer myself, I get more than my share of ugly emails from people who disagree with me. No one enjoys reading those. And as a woman and a Jew, I have sharply felt the sting of hatred. But unless there is a threat of violence (the Constitution provides for shutting down speech if it poses an imminent threat of violence or an imminent threat to national security), the way to handle such ugly emails is simply hitting the “Trash” button, or better yet, responding with more speech. Because if you shut down free speech this time, next time, the one who is shut down might be you.