Protect free speech – both for Ann Coulter and for students

The Observer editorial board

Protesters shout slogans in Berkeley, Calif., last week.
Protesters shout slogans in Berkeley, Calif., last week. AP

The recent cancellation of a speech by controversial conservative commentator Ann Coulter at the University of California-Berkeley was a dark day for free speech in the United States. We must not allow the threat of violence to silence Americans, no matter how unpleasant their speech.

That’s the one red line we must draw in our political discourse, no matter who’s in office or standing behind the podium. No exceptions.

And yet, the move by North Carolina and a handful of other states to enact laws that enhance punishment for students who disrupt speeches is a solution that would be worse than the problem. Despite what happened to Coulter and the likes of Tom Tancredo over his immigration views, UNC Wilmington Professor Mike Adams and his conservatism, and Spike Lee, who faced death and bomb threats when he spoke in North Carolina years ago, free speech is well-protected on college campuses. The proposed law, which passed the House in Raleigh late last week, may end up undercutting some forms of free expression to purportedly enhance the protection of other forms.

There has to be space for Coulter, despite her ugly rhetoric, which included saying Muslim countries needed to be invaded, their leaders killed and Muslims forced to convert to Christianity after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There also has to be room for students and others to confront her – as long as violence and other threats are not used. Coulter has the right to make audiences uncomfortable, and those audiences have the right to make her uncomfortable, too.

Critics of House Bill 527, also called “Restore/preserve campus free speech,” rightly note that it is based on model legislation from a conservative think tank and is overly vague, leaving too much room for abuse. Who gets to define how “disruptive” is too disruptive? Some of the country’s most important and effective social movements have involved in-your-face activists disrupting meals while sitting at segregated lunch counters, disrupting the flow of traffic, disrupting speeches on campus and elsewhere.

There are already plenty of laws against violence and trespassing, as well as court-based remedies for those who have been wrongly silenced. (Adams sued and won when he was denied a promotion.) Colleges and universities everywhere have conduct codes that deal with unruly students. We don’t see the need for more, especially from legislators who subvert other constitutionally protected rights – like ignoring voters by gutting the N.C. Court of Appeals to ensure conservative dominance after voters chose a Democratic governor – when they don’t like the results.

It is unfortunate that a seemingly growing number of students believes it’s best to shut down speech or shun speakers with whom they disagree instead of engaging in challenging and uncomfortable discourse. It’s a worrying development, one each of us should oppose.

The solution isn’t another ill-advised law; it’s better education about why free speech is a cornerstone of our democracy and a more robust adherence not only to the letter of the First Amendment, but its spirit.