Students hold signs and watch speakers at a noontime student walkout at the University of California, Berkeley on January 20, 2017 (Photo - Pete Forsyth).

      Students hold signs and watch speakers at a noontime student walkout at the University of California, Berkeley on January 20, 2017 (Photo – Pete Forsyth).

      I have planned on sharing my thoughts about Anne Coulter’s speech at UC Berkeley since last April. When its cancellation occurred I was puzzled by the reaction of many progressive friends, either condemning it or being torn about it. After taking their opinion in due consideration I realized I didn’t share their doubts. But I needed to gather documentation and ponder some more.

      By Toti O’Brien

      I completed the outline of what I wished to write on the night of August 11th. My prep took me so long the entire question—I thought—had luckily become obsolete. I woke up the day after with Charlottesville in the news. So perhaps I should jot down these notes.

      I will divide my thoughts in two sections—clarifying first why I can’t see a wrinkle in the college administrators’ behavior, then explaining why progressive reactions in defense of free speech arise my perplexity.



      UC Berkeley, following what Chancelor Nicholas Dirk declared in April, had two non-negotiable commitments, to free speech and to campus safety. Clearly a choice was made in favor of safety. I ask myself how an institution hosting more than forty thousand youth—many of them under twenty-one—could have higher priorities than to first and foremost protect students’ lives. Can anyone doubt it? Given to free speech all respect such principle deserves, there’s no way to freely express yourself once you are dead. Period.

      An objection could be made about the validity of the administrators’ worries. Fears were caused by a number of calls and written warnings, not only from the campus police, also from law enforcement partners in the region—meaning regular police. Law enforcement was concerned about individuals having openly announced they would come on campus in occasion of Coulter’s speech, and commit violence. Thus the alarm of those responsible for the students wasn’t based on assumptions—or, arguably, presumptions and prejudice. They were based on precise, repeated, circumstanced alerts by law enforcement agencies. We can have diverging opinions about our police integrity, neutrality, or ethics, but we hardly can accuse them of being partial to left-wing ideologies. If the police deemed important to caution UC Berkley against potential harm connected to Coulter’s speech, such behavior must have been not only sensible. It must have been unavoidable.

      But the objection about how probable or improbable the threat to safety was is invalid per se—whenever human lives are at risk no guessing is allowed. If a school receives a bomb threat, its campus is evacuated on the spot, even if the plausibility of the information is zero. If the same prank is repeated day after day, the school will be evacuated day after day. The same is true for airplanes. Nobody doubts the necessity of such procedure. It is obvious.

      Once the college administrators were warned, what choice was left to them besides the one they made? How could their decision be criticized? What is possibly more important than a student’s (or anybody’s) life?


      Obviously the right to free speech has limitations, similar to those applicable to all sorts of freedom. They are complex and very arguable borders, the definition of which constantly changes, being the matter of infinite controversy. Yet a mostly agreed upon limitation to free speech is the harm it could cause to others. Because Coulter’s speech had been deemed potentially harmful, it was not ‘suppressed’: it had nullified itself before happening, no more belonging into a lawful arena.

      Another limitation to the lawfulness of free speech is offense—a more controversial concept. Legislation about it is full of unresolved diatribe. Yet the concept of offense addresses the notion that words aren’t stones, thus they don’t directly cause wounds or death. They do it indirectly, when they openly incite physical violence and obtain it. Or—for instance—in cases of bullying, which can involve physical aggression (shoving, kicking, beating, up to mutilating and murdering) but can also happen dry, with no touching, only well delivered insults. Children, teens, adults have often committed suicide because of cruel, repeated, hammered verbal abuse. Yes, offense kills if pushed to the extreme. Or it creates psychosomatic disorders, as well as psychological damage—maybe harder to quantify but equally grave.

      On the basis of Coulters’ speeches and writing, UC Berkeley administrators might have wanted to consider how a majority of students could be deeply offended if exposed to her eloquence—all those not directly descending from British or Dutch settlers. Giving such potential offense serious pondering would have been thoughtful, mindful, and wise. But it happened to be unnecessary.

      Be My Guest

      I believe free speech to be a fundamental notion, perhaps the defining one as it comes to differentiate democracy from dictatorship. I am persuaded the price for each of us to be allowed to speak our credo is the willingness to let opposite ideas being voiced. Yet we don’t have to necessarily listen, neither we should be forced to.

      Which brings up the logistic dimension of the issue. Yes, I accept that others might not just support opinions diverging from mine, but—alas—offend, insult, spread what I consider to be lies about something sacred to me, and/or elements of my identity, and/or myself. They can write about it—I don’t have to read. They can speak on television or in any public venue—I don’t need to listen. I can’t be asked to expose myself to the offense, even less to expose people whose care is trusted to me, especially if I deem them vulnerable. I will not invite in my church a speaker who’ll offend my religion. I’ll not host in my library, my school, my club, a discourse likely to cause damage and hurt. Certainly I won’t allow it at my party, in my home. I’ll take care of protecting myself, even more my family or guests.

      Anyone can preach, record, publish what they like in public—meaning approximately neutral, impersonal, unclaimed—places, or in their own havens. But to be admitted into private or semiprivate institutions, organizations, or groups, is different. It implies mutual agreement, and cannot be exacted or imposed.

      Therefore it is crucial to define what a University is—certainly not a town square. It’s a place where students from all over the world pay tuition (or their families do) in order to receive higher education and specialized instruction. It is a circumscribed area inside which rules apply, and outsiders are allowed following specific criteria. It’s a place where one is admitted or invited as one could be not admitted, not invited—without any liberty being violated.

      Who pays?

      As a corollary to logistic, a brief note on honoraria.

      Giving a speech in an educational institution has little to do with freedom. It is a paid appointment, obtained based on multiple factors. Universities have budgets destined to remunerate guest scholars, artists, speakers, or to host performances, concerts, and other events. They consider proposals as well as they actively issue invitations. It is obviously an overly competitive arena. Qualified professionals might not have a chance to present in a particular University for the most various reasons—academics plans or prior commitments, educational goals or scheduling conflicts. Brilliant individuals in any field might never appear in a college setting. It is not a right. It is a gig, subject to all sort of determining circumstances, more than all depending on the hiring part’s preferences, which don’t have to be justified or discussed, and usually aren’t.

      Money for guest speakers comes from tuition, does it? I wonder how ethical it would be for those in charge to have students and families subsidize speakers addressing them in a derogative, insulting, offending manner. It sounds like a surreal paradox.

      On the basis of two simple questions, hypothetically every college in the US could refrain from hosting any speaker they’d decide not to, without violating any right, any freedom. Here are the questions. It is fair to take money from this population of students, in payment for this speech? Is this speech the best educational choice in the context of this institute’s mission, vision, didactic, and ethics?

      Could the answer be invariably and honestly “no, it isn’t”? Hypothetically it could.


      Don’t do to your brother

      I am not sure of the reasoning behind progressives blaming UC Berkley’s decision. Articles, posts, tweets weren’t extremely detailed. Overall I gathered a general argument that I found unconvincing.

      It comes down to worries about setting a precedent of intolerance, which could be later used to reciprocate. In other words, “if we now stifle the free expression of an adverse ideology, when such ideology will climb to power it will stifle our free expression. Thus, let’s make free speech our number one concern”. I have already discussed why this didn’t seem possible in the case of UC Berkeley, as students’ safety was at stake. What I wish to point to attention, though, are some fallacies in the argument itself.

      It applies symmetry to an asymmetric reality, giving as granted that if x acts in a certain way towards y, y will reciprocate accordingly. Why? It obviously depends on the nature of x and y. If the lamb is sweet (as lambs are) to the lion, going as far as offering a bunch of green grass, it will still be devoured—as it would if it had been an impolite jerk. Lions eat lambs. We don’t try to be gracious to rattlesnakes, we just turn our back without a word of apology. Two enemy soldiers meeting face to face don’t observe duel etiquette. The one who hesitates a nanosecond before shooting is dead. Perhaps, there might be reasons for applying rules of fairness towards agencies which—like the alt-right or white supremacists—openly profess unfair attitudes and promote oppression, exclusion, persecution, murder, massacre of the opponent. But to think that in response to fairness those groups will betray their credos—and adopt instead fairness—is bad strategy.

      Past, Present, Future

      The apprehension about retaliation also seems displaced, because it projects in the future a damage already occurred.

      Those defending free speech in the month of April treated the alt-right as a menace still likely to be isolated in vitro, if appropriately grasped with long tweezers. But the new presidency had started in January. Meaning the opinions of Coulter, although offending most of the students attending UC Berkley, paradoxically represented the alleged majority and the ideology in power. What prudent progressives were anxious to avoid had already happened. Simultaneously to the Coulter incident, the US president was busy castigating the press, demonstrating a total lack of respect for free speech. In April 2017, not allowing a speech by Coulter in a college no more belonged in the domain of suppressing a minority voice. It meant having the guts to displease the elected power. And those having such courage were technically already a minority—at least a defeated point of view.

      Many decades ago I read a note about mental illness I haven’t forgotten. It related to neurosis and anxiety. It explained how those suffering such conditions spend their life waiting for a disaster that has already happened.

      This idea comes to mind in relation to overcautious attitudes, seemingly exorcising a catastrophe we have already witnessed. Therefore, not only it should be less frightening—we might also have grown antibodies.

      I don’t mean the catastrophe being the present political plight. Not only. I consider how all powers based on dictatorship, oppression, exclusion, classism, racism, xenophobia, hate of minorities, persecution, intolerance (the whole agenda by which alt-right, white supremacists and our present rulers swear) have always behaved. These ideologies have never allowed free speech—how would it belong in their job description? They have steadily silenced their ‘enemies’. They have thrown them in prison. They have killed them and made no mystery of it. The disaster—as this virus humanity carries could be fairly defined—has happened over and over. It is not a menace to be cannily avoided. It is history.

      The Free Speech Movement was born at UC Berkeley in 1964. Its key member was Mario Savio, the son of Italian immigrants and a civil-right activist, therefore arrested and jailed more than once. Alt-right speakers wouldn’t like his kind. Not even a bit.

      Toti O’Brien was born in Italy and lives in Pasadena. She’s a published poet and writer. She is also a folk musician and a coloratura soprano, singing opera and choral music, as well as a visual artist. She joins our ColoradoBoulevard.net family writing about Opera music and the arts.

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