In Ann Coulter’s Speech Battle, Signs That Conservatives Are Emboldened

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Berkeley has again become a symbolic flash point. The university was not just the cradle of the Free Speech Movement but also the site of a violent 1969 crackdown that delighted many protest-weary Americans when Ronald Reagan, then California’s governor, ordered the National Guard to move in on student demonstrators.

The broader point that conservatives now say they are making resonates far beyond academia, and in many ways echoes some of the most bitter undercurrents of the 2016 presidential election.

President Trump’s victory was, to many of his supporters, a defiant uprising against what they saw as a cultural and political elite that told them their values were wrong and their beliefs bigoted. And Mr. Trump, who has routinely used racially charged controversies and social movements like Black Lives Matter to his political benefit, has leapt to their defense, ready to fan the flames.

When Berkeley administrators canceled an appearance by the professional right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos in February after riots broke out, Mr. Trump questioned on Twitter whether the university should have its federal funding revoked.

Even some liberals say the heavy-handedness by university administrators and students is only reinforcing conservatives’ suspicions, which the left insists are overblown for maximum political potency.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described democratic socialist, this week scolded anyone who would shut out Ms. Coulter. “What are you afraid of — her ideas?” he asked.


Middlebury College students turned their backs on the author Charles Murray during a lecture last month in Vermont. Credit Lisa Rathke/Associated Press

Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, argued that the controversy only handed Ms. Coulter the big platform she craved. “If you don’t like it, don’t show up,” she said. Even The Onion weighed in with a satirical blurb about Berkeley being on police lockdown after loose pages of The Wall Street Journal were abandoned on a park bench.

“Unfortunately, Berkeley and other universities have played into a narrative that the right would love to advance,” said Robert B. Reich, a former Labor secretary under President Bill Clinton who is now a professor of public policy at Berkeley. “The narrative assumes a cultural plot against the free expression of right-wing views in which academe, mainstream media — every facet of the establishment — is organized against them.”

Mr. Reich, noting the parallels to Mr. Trump’s message, added, “That’s a narrative Trump used to get into the White House.”

The university breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday, but it criticized Ms. Coulter, who has a knack for provocation and a history of inviting disruption wherever she speaks, for being wanton and reckless given that it had offered to accommodate her at a later date after canceling her originally scheduled speech. The Berkeley chancellor, Nicholas B. Dirks, said in a note to the campus, “This is a university, not a battlefield.”

Berkeley has become a meeting ground for what the city’s chief of police, Andrew Greenwood, has described as politically motivated groups “armed and prepared to fight.”

Outside groups representing the far left and far right have clashed in the city several times over the past few months in a fight club atmosphere that university administrators say they have not seen in many years, if ever. During the most recent clash, on April 15, the police arrested 20 people. But Chief Greenwood warned of the difficulties and dangers of intervening in future clashes.

The university had prepared to call up hundreds of police officers for Ms. Coulter’s visit, at a significant cost. Still, the groups that organized her visit sued the university after it moved the timing of her speech, saying that conservative speakers were being treated differently from left-leaning ones on the famously liberal campus.

In his note, Mr. Dirks said the school must “make every effort to hold events at a time and location that maximizes the chances that First Amendment rights can be successfully exercised and that community members can be protected.”

But many on the right see a new and insidious form of thought policing. And they argue that it is only spreading now that the debate over which ideas can be expressed publicly is becoming a catchall that can include almost anyone right of center, and has extended to corporate America, where liberal-led boycotts have targeted socially conservative chief executives.

In some high schools, universities and businesses where liberal ideas dominate, said Ben Domenech, the publisher of The Federalist, a conservative website, “speech has become something they could not only object to but that needed to be stamped out — that was hate and had no place in the public square.”


A student protest turned violent at Berkeley during a demonstration over a planned speech by the professional right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
Credit Stephen Lam/Reuters

And coupled with a realization by many conservatives that the culture wars on issues like same-sex marriage may have forever turned against them, the belief that their right of expression is under assault is acutely threatening. “The First Amendment,” Mr. Domenech added, “is their last line of defense.”

Assuming the role of oppressed majority is something conservatives have, of course, long done. And they have certainly not abandoned all efforts to stifle expression they deem morally indefensible or offensive.

Public universities remain favorite targets of socially conservative state legislators who want to cut funding for classes that teach issues like homosexuality and gender. And some Republican lawmakers are moving to stamp out demonstrations they find to be a nuisance, as in North Dakota, where a new law aims to make it easier for law enforcement to control protests like the one that tried to block construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

But liberals and conservatives agree that the situation on campuses is something far more corrosive than mere hypersensitivity by 18-year-olds. At Middlebury College in Vermont last month, a crowd attacked the political scientist Charles Murray, the author of “The Bell Curve,” which makes a data-based argument that differences in average I.Q. scores among races may have genetic as well as environmental causes. A professor accompanying Mr. Murray had her neck injured and went to the hospital.

Heather Mac Donald, a Manhattan Institute scholar who has defended police tactics in the face of criticism by groups like Black Lives Matter, has been mobbed at colleges like Claremont McKenna and the University of California, Los Angeles. At the U.C.L.A. event, demonstrators shouted over her as she took questions from the crowd. “You have no right to speak!” one man yelled.

Many liberals denounce what they see as a growing tolerance of aggressive and intolerant speech against minorities and immigrants. That has only grown worse now that Mr. Trump is president, and people like Ms. Coulter feed on that, they argue.

The result has been such toxicity on college campuses that even conservatives acknowledge it is causing their side to dig in irrationally, growing intractable even when the speaker is someone like Mr. Yiannopoulos, who has defended pederasty, or Richard Spencer, a white supremacist and self-appointed leader of the fringe alt-right movement.

“Because the hard-core campus left has conflated any political speech with the worst kind of speech, the response has become, ‘All speech is fine,’” said Ben Shapiro, a conservative writer and speaker who has sometimes found himself the target of angry eruptions at universities. Last year at California State’s Los Angeles campus, Mr. Shapiro faced a similar situation when the university said it would no longer accommodate him because of security concerns; he spoke anyway, under police guard.

Lumping Ms. Coulter in with someone more extreme like Mr. Spencer, Mr. Shapiro said, creates a situation in which practically no conservative viewpoint is welcome. “All these lines become arbitrary, and then it’s easier to allow nothing.”

What some conservatives see as even more damaging to their cause is how figures like Mr. Spencer, who was seen on video this year being punched in the head while he gave an interview, as somehow sympathetic.

“I’m not interested in making martyrs of people I disagree with,” said Cliff Maloney Jr., the president of Young Americans for Liberty, which works to remove speech restrictions like “safe zones,” areas on some campuses where political speech is kept confined. “But when emotions get so wrapped up, you end up propping up people who don’t stand for the principles we believe in.”

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