Berkeley: Violence, unrest and the silencing of dissent
Liam Stewart | Monday, May 1, 2017
Controversy erupted yet again at the University of California, Berkeley, after campus Republicans invited Ann Coulter to speak at an event last Thursday. Mrs. Coulter is a conservative social and political commentator, nationally syndicated columnist and the author of 12 New York Times best-sellers. Less than a week before the event was scheduled to take place, however, University administrators canceled Mrs. Coulter’s appearance, citing security concerns.
This decision represents just the latest example of an administration unable or unwilling to confront the violent and far-left elements of its campus. In February, another conservative speaker was evacuated from Berkeley’s campus after a series of violent protests erupted, causing over $100,000 worth of damage to the campus.
Protestors wearing masks threw commercial-grade fireworks and rocks at police, while unidentified black-clad agitators hurled Molotov cocktails that ignited fires. At least six people were badly injured, including two College Republicans who were attacked while conducting an interview. Other protestors smashed windows, lit fires and looted the nearby student union center. Not a single arrest was made throughout the night.
After this horrific experience, it is easy to understand why administrators would be so eager to avoid any further protests. What is less clear, however, is how conditions on Berkeley’s campus have deteriorated to such an extent that it is unable to ensure the safety of conservative speakers on campus.
Last November, I wrote a column criticizing students at Berkeley for demanding segregated “safe spaces” for black and transgender students. Social inclusion and not exclusion, I argued, is the key to overcoming bigotry and divisiveness. Unfortunately, the increasingly regressive view of social activism on Berkeley’s campus has created an extreme and volatile climate for students. Rather than engaging in respectful and meaningful discourse, students seem content to yell at one another and riot uncontrollably.
It is hard to believe that Berkeley — formerly known as the “birthplace of the Free Speech Movement” — would demonstrate such a blatant disregard for the rights of conservative students on campus. Once a beacon of intellectual thought and expression, it has been reduced to a bastion of radical leftism and political suppression.
It is even more troubling when you consider that Berkeley is a public university, funded by American taxpayers and required by law to protect students’ First Amendment rights. Unlike private universities like Notre Dame, which enjoy greater discretion in the administration of school policy, it is illegal and unconstitutional for a government institution to restrict free speech or otherwise impede students’ rights. The inability of Berkeley administrators to provide for the safety of conservative students and guest speakers is not only irresponsible and immoral — it is criminal.
Recognizing this fact, legal teams representing Berkeley College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation filed lawsuits against the University early last week, claiming administrators discriminated against conservative speakers and violated students’ rights to free speech. In the past, Young America’s Foundation has had success litigating similar cases against public universities.
Unfortunately, the potential for violence has become a serious threat to college campuses nationwide. The modern progressive movement has proliferated the view that divisive and dissenting opinions should not be tolerated on campus. It has called for ‘safe spaces’ and ‘political correctness,’ demanded ‘trigger-warnings,’ and even equated ‘microaggressions’ to physical bodily harm. With such an apparent disdain for the freedom of speech, is it any wonder that students would choose violence over civil discourse?
A free and open exchange of differing views is not just essential to our system of education; it is the very foundation of our democratic process. If we cannot listen to dissenting opinions, how can we challenge our own ideas and preconceptions? How do we become better thinkers, leaders and citizens? As a society, we should embrace voices of dissent and protect the right of all Americans to have a minority opinion — including, and especially, on campus.
Sadly, the corrosive political atmosphere at Berkeley has deteriorated almost beyond the point of recovery. If administrators, trustees and government officials continue to turn a blind eye as conservatives are threatened and students’ voices are silenced, Berkeley will struggle to remain in the top-tier of American universities for long.
I applaud the Berkeley College Republicans, Berkeley Young Americans and all those students fighting to protect the freedom of speech on campus. However, given the negligence of University administrators and the sheer size of Berkeley’s liberal majority, student action may not be enough. As a public university funded by Californian taxpayers and a recipient of federal monies, the government has the legal responsibility and authority to ensure that all students’ rights are protected.
President Truman once said, speaking on “the principle of silencing the voice of opposition,” that it can only lead to one path. And that path is oppressive, tyrannical and undemocratic.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.