I believe in free speech, the First Amendment and all that. That’s our starting point on campus, and in America. It’s free speech for me and thee, as the saying goes, in a healthy democracy.
So let’s not make Ann Coulter into a free speech martyr just yet because the University of California, Berkeley switched her speech dates from this coming Thursday, April 27, to a time and place that could assure her safety. That would be May 2.
Instead of being flattered that there are some people concerned for her personal well-being, Coulter’s not going to have it. In addition, the more she complains, the more it comes off as a less-than-fine whine.
There is good reason for the switched dates. Some people were actually thinking nice things about Coulter and showing concern, which is more than most of the public would. However, such is the price one pays for living life as the ever-provocative right-wing media persona of one’s own creation. She’s Bill O’Reilly in a dress. And I’m sure she’s upset to not be considered for his replacement. She’ll just have to make her noise elsewhere.
As I’ve long said, colleges and universities don’t have a “free speech” problem. They have a “how to present provocative speakers” problem.
And Berkeley has actually come up with a good compromise after it originally cancelled Coulter’s April 27 appearance.
Berkeley’s solution — a different date and a safer venue — actually makes common sense.
Of course, everyone seems to have a dog in this fight, from the Berkeley College Republicans that sent her the initial invitation, as well as the national conservative group, the Young America’s Foundation (which incidentally reported as footing the vast part of Coulter’s $20,000 speaking fee). And everyone is threatening legal action.
However, university spokesperson Dan Mogulof said the school was on solid legal grounds and spoke about putting public safety first.
“We are concerned about (Coulter’s) disregard for the assessment and recommendations of law enforcement professionals whose primary focus is the safety and well-being of our students and other members of our campus community,” Mogulof told the Washington Post.
I suppose a right-wing, pro-gun fanatic like Coulter would say we’d all be safer if everyone just showed up with their own guns. As I write the sentence, the notion is ludicrous.
However, I would like to see how much concerned she would have for her safety at a right-to-carry school like the University of Texas at Austin.
Instead, Coulter is all too willing to put herself up on a stake as if she were the First Amendment’s St. Joan. The symbolism is more appealing than anything.
Coulter’s part of the showbiz realm of politics, which Donald Trump has exploited to the extreme. More than actually speaking to the crowd, Coulter gets her jollies from the process of getting to the podium. The news generated from being cancelled, then offered a substitute venue, and then rejecting that and threatening legal action, does more for Coulter than actually giving the speech.
Whatever she was going to say would not be considered news. Rejecting a substitute venue makes Coulter news.
What gets lost in all the posturing is the real problem of adequate public safety at events that draw large numbers of outsiders — and potential disrupters.
The school’s solution made sense. Hold it during day hours when the dark of night is not an ally to protestors. And have it during a break period. Fewer students, sure, but those students who desperately want to meet Coulter will be there. And those who don’t will be away. Such a move also lowers the net potential liability to actual university community members. And the ones who want to see her and show up will be adequately protected by university cops.
A fair compromise. Personally, I would have had it while class was in session during the day. In a classroom, students who did want to ask questions and challenge Coulter could do so.
But again, that’s not really what Coulter or the young conservatives are interested in. It’s not about the public discourse. It’s all about the public show, and exploiting the legacy of Berkeley, the great public university that has its symbolic legacy of protest and free speech. And now they have a week’s work of buildup before any speech or discourse occurs.
Coulter gets much pub. And likely will get to keep a chunk of her $20,000 fee whether she speaks or not.
If she’s really interested in free speech, let’s see her volunteer to show up at a class. Forget the fee. Go to a lecture hall and teach without portfolio. (What does Coulter know compared to say Robert Reich, the former Clinton labor secretary who teaches there?) Talk for a while and take questions. Make it a class, not a rhetorical circus for media attention. Act like a scholar with something to say, instead of a blonde mannequin with something to sell — books, an image, a right-wing viewpoint. Let’s see if she actually belongs up there with the best professors speaking to the students of arguably America’s finest public university.
Who knows what will happen this week?
But if Coulter wants to keep playing free-speech saint, I’d settle for her showing up unannounced on Bancroft and Telegraph during the day with a bullhorn next to the mobile falafel stand. Let’s see who draws more — Coulter or the chickpea balls.
That would be interesting if she were really about free speech, exchanging ideas or engaging with students — in public. Next to a food truck. But that’s not Ann Coulter.
Coulter’s the $20,000-a-speech right-wing media star, with nothing to say, but always happy to be the center of attention.
Berkeley should stick to its stand, offering her a way to speak, but putting public safety first. It’s a good common-sense compromise.
A conservative like Coulter should be more appreciative of the school’s cautious approach.
Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist and commentator. He writes for the civil rights group, AALDEF, at www.aaldef.org/blog.