The muzzling of free speech

We should all be disturbed by the situation at UC Berkeley where protestors blocked the scheduled speaking appearance of right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter. What happened to Coulter follows on the heels of protests earlier this year at Middlebury College where guest speaker Charles Murray, author of the controversial “Bell Curve” theory  was prevented from airing his views by a crowd that became violent. In 2014, Christine Lagarde, chief of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew as a commencement speaker at Smith College in the face of protests by angry students. That same year, Brandeis University barred women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a commencement speaker because her views on the Palestinian issue might have made some students uncomfortable. Now we read that students at Notre Dame may demonstrate against the choice of Vice President Mike Pence as an invited graduation speaker.

Regardless where one stands on the positions advocated by these and any other individuals who might be invited to speak at universities and colleges, it should be understood that they have the right to say whatever they want without fear of violence. The First Amendment guarantees that individuals have the right of free speech in this country. Shouting down a speaker does nothing to advance the cause of ideas, nor does it open people up to what universities should be for–the development of critical thinking skills. Controversial ideas need to be debated with counter arguments. They will usually fall on their own lack of merit when openly challenged in civil forums.

I would not choose to attend a lecture by Ann Coulter.  I find her views despicable.  But at the same time, I would never move to muzzle her right of free speech.  It’s especially ironic that Coulter ran afoul of the politically correct crowd in the very place where the theme of “free speech” was  coined some 50 years ago–the University of California at Berkeley.  All that has been accomplished by this outburst of anger is to make Coulter a martyr in the eyes of her followers. Furthering the irony, she’s been able to draw attention to herself and has become a sympathetic character to many people–some of whom probably had never heard of her.  I suspect that is the last thing that the Berkeley protestors intended.