Opinion

Ann Coulter’s dispute with UC Berkeley isn’t about free speech. It’s about risk.

Ann Coulter gestures while speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, commonly referred to as CPAC, in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.
Ann Coulter gestures while speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, commonly referred to as CPAC, in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012. Associated Press file

Sixteen days into the spring semester and three months before the current furor over Ann Coulter, 150 or so masked outsiders swarmed onto the UC Berkeley campus and turned a peaceful protest there into a riot.

The occasion, beyond fear and rage at President Donald Trump’s assumption of office, was a planned appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos, the celebrity alt-right hatemonger. The agitators — anarchists and anti-fascist groups from off campus and, in many cases, other cities — set fires, threw Molotov cocktails, pepper-sprayed bystanders, heaved bricks at police and broke windows. Damage was estimated at $100,000. Six people were hurt.

A couple of weeks later, more outsiders — a New York-based alt-right group and a conservative pundit — announced a follow-up march to the campus. According to The San Francisco Chronicle, some 75 neo-Nazis and neo-fascists showed up, many from elsewhere, for the March 4 protest.

Predictably, the anti-fascist and anarchist counter-demonstrators came to town to confront them. The march hadn’t even begun when the violence erupted. Seven people were injured this time, and 10 were arrested. Metal pipes, wooden bats, bricks and an illegal dagger were confiscated by police.

On April 15, the same right-wing extremist groups came to Berkeley again, and again clashed with left-wing extremists. This time, 11 were injured, six were hospitalized, and one was stabbed.

The 30-year-old founder of a white supremacist group was caught on tape punching a 20-year-old female anti-fascist. He’d driven from CSU Stanislaus; she’d come up from Ventura County.

They could have stood on a soapbox at any number of places, but they wanted their rumble to be as close as possible to the university known for its progressive politics and its role in the free speech movement. That has been the whole point, for all these groups and celebrities, on all sides: to exploit UC Berkeley and make a political backdrop of the 40,000 students trying to go to school there.

Now comes Coulter, another celebrity hatemonger with another book and another invitation from campus Republicans to speak at UC Berkeley. The fight over where and when she should appear has been framed as a question of free speech. It’s not.

No one has told Coulter to shut up — not the UC administration, not the students, not even Robert Reich, the former Clinton administration secretary of labor who is on the faculty at UC Berkeley. To the contrary, the general sentiment — including on this editorial board — is to give her a platform.

The debate, given the escalating violence these past few months, is over how to make sure no one gets hurt or killed in the process.

College Republicans wanted her to speak Thursday, but as threats mounted and it became clear that agitators were assembling armies, the university asked that she speak the following week, in the daytime, in a more easily secured venue.

Coulter should have been glad: It would be safer for her, and probably better for attendance. Students’ class schedules are cleared that week so that they can start preparing for finals. Anyone who wanted to hear her trash Muslims or The New York Times or joke about poisoning the desserts of liberal Supreme Court justices, or insist that Christians are “perfected Jews” could take a study break and drop by.

But either Coulter feared that wouldn’t generate enough publicity, or she’s still such a snowflake at 55 that she can’t even change the date of a speech without a tantrum.

She insists she will speak at Berkeley on Thursday. Also, though it isn’t clear they have a legal leg to stand on, her student sponsors and their lawyer, a former vice chairwoman of the California Republican Party, have sued.

Obviously, Berkeley police should do all they can to keep the peace Thursday. In the meantime, though, it is clear that UC Berkeley sorely needs a clear, coherent policy on scheduling and securing celebrity appearances.

The university is being used. Coulter, Yiannopoulos and the extremists around them don’t want free speech; they want a taxpayer financed forum for political theater, even if it hurts people and puts 40,000 kids at risk.

Editor’s note: Editorials from other newspapers are offered to stimulate debate and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune.

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