A recent string of events has brought the University of California, Berkeley under the scrutiny from both sides of the political spectrum. Though it originated as a somewhat low-profile, scheduled event hosted by campus groups, it rapidly transformed into a debate about First Amendment rights on the national stage, culminating in attention from major media outlets, legal scholars, and political pundits.
Ann Coulter is a controversial conservative political commentator, particularly regarding the topics of immigration, marriage equality, and religion. The University of California, Berkeley is a politically and socially aware public university with a long history of progressive activism and involvement in social movements.
Coulter was expected to speak on the topic of illegal immigration on April 27 in an event hosted by BridgeUSA and the Berkeley College Republicans. Liberal groups in Berkeley (and elsewhere) were strongly against Coulter’s speech, but nothing tangible had actually happened until the UC Berkeley administration canceled the event on April 19. In fact, although students expressed concern, no groups on campus at UCB ever officially sought to hinder Coulter from coming to speak on campus.
UCB proposed rescheduling the event due to safety concerns related to the riots resulting from a February on-campus event at which alt-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak*. The day after it proposed to reschedule the Coulter event, UCB re-invited Coulter to speak, this time on May 2. This was after the Berkeley College Republicans filed a lawsuit against the university for “smothering conservative speech.” However, May 2 is notably during the school’s “dead week”—the week before exams, during which many students are not on campus or are too busy studying to attend extracurricular events. Thus, the proposal was rejected by the Berkeley College Republicans, BridgeUSA, and Ann Coulter.
*The riots that took place during this event were not the actions of UCB students, but of external groups. The riots did, however, take place on the UCB campus.
What does this mean for the First Amendment?
The ACLU has criticized the University’s actions as suppressive of the First Amendment. The organization released a statement arguing that the government should not determine what speech can be considered protected by the First Amendment. Read the ACLU’s full statement here. Restrictions on the First Amendment have traditionally been left to the courts; for further reading, see footnote.
One specifically relevant case is Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969). In this case, a Ku Klux Klan leader made a speech for which he was later convicted under a syndicalism law that criminalized advocating for “crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform.” The law also criminalized assembling with “any society… formed to teach or advocate the doctrines of criminal syndicalism.” The question before the Supreme Court was whether the Ohio syndicalism law violated the KKK leader’s right to free speech.
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the law did in fact violate the man’s right to free speech as it was overly broad while failing to ensure that it would prevent imminent lawless action. The ruling established a two-pronged test to evaluate similar speech acts. Free speech may be prohibited if:
This ruling was important as it protected citizens’ speech from being considered the proximate cause of violence that they did not intend to provoke. Although the ruling in Brandenburg is the precedent set by the Supreme Court, it is important to consider the ways that the law can move the needle forward for minority groups who may be harmed by hateful rhetoric. In “Public Response to Racist Speech: Considering the Victim’s Story,” political scientist Mari Matsuda does just that.
In conclusion, there is much grey area surrounding the ideological dispute over the First Amendment, and groups all across the political spectrum continue to disagree about its extents and limits. The Ann Coulter UC Berkeley controversy is neither the beginning nor the end of the free speech debate.
 For further reading on the restrictions the United States Supreme Court has placed on the First Amendment, see: Chaplinksy v. New Hampshire (1942), Miller v. California (1973), and Snyder v. Phelps (2011)
If you would like to learn more about your rights or believe that you have been discriminated against please visit the Civil Rights Justice Center located at 2150 N. 107th Street in Seattle Washington or visit our website at civilrightsjusticecenter.com
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