Free speech: Banned in Berkeley

There really isn’t much difference between burning books and banning speakers. Either way, it amounts to the same thing — censoring ideas that don’t comport with your world view.

The left justifies censorship of its political opponents by a very simple ruse. It labels them as being so far beyond the pale that banning them is necessary for the public good. Left-wing protesters at UC Berkeley recently summed up this practice with a banner that said: “It’s not about ‘free speech.’ It’s about bigots trying to normalize hate.”

As liberals see it, they aren’t censoring speech at all, they are protecting the world from hateful ideology (translation: any ideology that differs from their own).

If this effort were directed just at true fringe groups or figures, there would be less objection to it, although there still could be violations of civil rights.

But the left uses this tactic against mainstream opponents as well. One example is Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. Senate Democrats dubbed him an “extremist” during his recent confirmation hearings, but he was confirmed anyway, as he should have been. If Gorsuch is an extremist, so is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

The left’s next target was conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who was recently invited to speak at Berkeley by Republican students. Liberal students threatened violence if she showed up. They had used violence in the recent past against other perceived extremists.

According to the left, Coulter hates immigrants, among other sins, thus her views cannot be tolerated. Her appearance was cancelled by the chancellor, who said the university could not guarantee her safety at the citadel of free speech.

In fact, Coulter just wants secure borders and controlled immigration, as do millions of Americans. But liberals cannot effectively counter that mainstream position with their own less-popular desire for open borders, so they demonize Coulter by turning her into a racist bigot who cannot be allowed to pollute students’ minds with her hate.

Although she is outspoken, Coulter is hardly the fringe fanatic the left portrays her to be. Her column is syndicated by mainstream newspapers, and her books are perennial bestsellers.

That’s the problem for the left, as well as its motivation. The more popular the opponent, the greater the need to silence her, lest her ideas defeat their own in the court of public opinion and ultimately at the ballot box.

Berkeley could have kept Coulter safe had it wanted to, but that might have entailed throwing some cossetted liberal students in jail or expelling them from school if they committed or incited violence. 

That was out of the question, of course. One does not interrupt the tuition cash flow or anger the liberal faculty. Instead, you provide safe rooms with coloring books for students who torch buildings and threaten others.

Some on the left justified the Berkeley decision by saying Coulter had other venues from which to speak, therefore her rights were not infringed at all. By that logic, there are other books to read besides those that are burned.

The core issue is the burning and the banning in the first place, not whether you can find replacements. If the book burners and speech banners are left unchecked, eventually you run out of books and venues.

The argument about other venues also ignored the possibility that the student sponsors might not get another chance to hear a major conservative voice on campus, particularly in a stifling academic atmosphere like UC Berkeley. Not only was Coulter victimized, but so were the students themselves.

The mainstream press, siding as usual with the left, portrayed the Coulter incident as an ideological draw between equally unsavory right-wing extremists and left-wing anarchists. Never mind that the right was only attempting to stop the left’s injustice. So clearly was the left in the wrong in this case that even the ACLU came to Coulter’s defense.

If Ann Coulter is sometimes provocative or inflammatory, she has plenty of company on the left from pundits like New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and celebrities like Madonna, who publicly mused about “blowing up the White House” after Donald Trump was elected.

If you are on the left, however, such speech is just metaphorical. You get a pass and a cookie. If you are on the right, you are demonized for trying to “normalize hate.”

In the name of fighting hate, many liberals are trying to ban ideological opponents these days. One wonders if they realize that their own intolerance makes them bigots themselves.


Mark Godburn is an antiquarian bookseller and writer in North Canaan. His book, “Nineteenth-Century Dust-Jackets,” is available from the Oak Knoll Press.