By now you’ve probably heard to the Ann Coulter Berkeley controversy. To sum up, college Republicans invited Coulter to speak at UC Berkeley, which has been a hotbed of anti-Trump protests (notably a riot when Milo Yiannopoulos spoke back in February). Berkeley cancelled the speech, citing security concerns over threatened violence. They reversed after an outcry but the effort to get her to speak broke down amidst recriminations and threats of violence.
Our blog has a long history of slamming Ann Coulter (Lee used to call her “Mann Coulter”). But this is revolting. Coulter is not a Nazi. She’s not advocating violence or making true threats. She’s simply saying things that people disagree with. I disagree with her, too, but … she has a right to say them. She definitely has a right to say them at a public university. And I would argue that while she has no “right” to say them at a private university, she should be allowed to in our effort to maintain a culture that respects free speech and open dialogue.
The editors at National Review say it better than I ever could:
For those at Berkeley celebrating what they believe to be a moral victory, consider this: As much as you may detest Ann Coulter, she has never used violence or the threat of violence to keep someone from speaking. She is a better citizen than you are, with a deeper commitment to genuinely liberal and humane values. You may call yourselves the anti-fascists, but your black-shirt routine — along with your glorification of political violence and your rejection of liberal and democratic norms — suggest that the “anti” part of that formulation is not entirely appropriate. Perhaps you are only young and ignorant, but if you had any power of introspection at all, you would see that you are the thing you believe yourselves to be fighting. You are the oppressors, the censors, the violent, the hateful, the narrow-minded, the reactionary.
I’ll give credit where it’s due. There are a number of liberals — Glenn Greenwald, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Bill Maher, Christ Mathews — who have lept to Coulter’s defense. They have made it clear that while they consider her ideas repulsive, the use of violence to shut down speakers is even more repulsive. Challenge, debate, protest — these are all good. But shutting down smacks of censorship.
It’s also worthing noting, as many have, how fast we’ve gotten to the point where threatening violence against Ann Coulter is now acceptable. The anti-free-speech sentiment has, of course, been building for years with campus activists claiming that speech can constitute violence and therefore violence in response is justified. We’ve seen hints of thuggish censorship in such things as the Missouri incident and the UCSB professor who seized and tore up anti-abortion signs. But the Trump presidency seems to have accelerated this awful trend, with speech suppression and violence supposedly justified by Trump’s awfulness and a tiny but particularly loathsome subset of his supporters.
The big alarm bell was a couple of months ago. Richard Spencer — a white supremacist and Trump supporter — got sucker-punched during an interview. Many liberals cheered for this. People like me — while finding Spencer and his views repulsive — objected to the use of violence against a non-violent speaker. And that’s when the Nazi argument was unfurled. We were told, “Hey, he’s a Nazi! He doesn’t respect our right to free speech!” Ken White absolutely demolishes that argument:
First, the argument relies on a false premise: that we don’t, or shouldn’t, extend rights to people who wouldn’t extend those rights to us. This is childish nonsense, and a common argument for tyranny. We criminal defense lawyers know it very well: why should this guy get a trial? He didn’t give his victim a trial. Why should she be shown any mercy? She didn’t show her victims mercy. Why does he get due process? He didn’t give his victims due process. The argument is particularly popular since 9/11. You hear it a lot whenever anyone suggests that maybe people accused of being terrorists — or of being someone who might plausibly grow up to be a terrorist, or might take up terrorism as soon as this wedding is over — perhaps should be treated as having some sort of right not to be killed or tortured or indefinitely detained. Nonsense, is the response. They wouldn’t give you any rights. The constitution isn’t a suicide pact! It’s also popular in matters of modern religious liberty. How can you argue that Muslims should have the freedom to worship here when Muslim countries deny Christians and Jews that right? In this manner, the student Left represented by the quotes below shares an ethos with the authoritarian and racist wings of the Right. A common taste for authoritarianism makes strange bedfellows.1
In fact, we extend rights to everyone, regardless of whether they support those rights or not. That’s the deal, it’s the way rights work. Rights arise from our status as humans, not from our adherence to ideology. If they didn’t, I could very plausibly say this: Pomona College, Wellesley College, and Berkeley should expel the students quoted above, because people actively advocating to limit free speech rights can’t expect any free speech rights themselves.
White’s equally salient point is that once you’ve said it’s OK to silence Nazis with violence, it’s a slippery slope to silencing everybody with violence. When this argument was raised after the Spencer punch, liberals said we were being hysterical. But the Coulter mess — along with a dozen other incidents — has proven our concerns ominously justified. In just a few months, we’ve gone from “it’s OK to punch a Nazi” to “it’s OK to beat up someone who invited Charles Murray to speak” to “it’s OK to silence Heather McDonald” to “it’s OK to threaten violence if mainstream Republicans march in non-political parade”.
(The Murray one is especially interesting because Murray was planning to talk about the growing disconnect between coastal elites and rural voters. Academics who read the speech, not knowing the identity of the author, thought it was very reasonable. But Murray once wrote a book about race and intelligence so, apparently, everything he does is contaminated).
To be fair, I suspect these thought-suppressers are a vocal minority. CNN interviewed many Berkeley students who support Coulter’s right to speak. But … that’s kind of the problem. Students who support free speech have been cowed by a vocal, violent minority into compliance. And worse, we have college professors and administrators defending these actions, establishing a campus norm that censorship is acceptable, even admirable.
I don’t want to give the impression that censorship is a one-sided affair. We’ve certainly seen the Right erupt over “unacceptable speech”, including a thoroughly misguided effort to punish campus protesters. But there is little doubt that the censorship efforts on campuses — which should be more free and more open to debate — are being led by the Left.
What’s especially ironic is that these protests are taking place in the University of California system. We’ve recently found out that the UC system is burning money like no one’s business.
The University of California hid a stash of $175 million in secret funds while its leaders requested more money from the state, an audit released on Tuesday said.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the audit found that the secret fund ballooned due to UC Office of the President overestimating how much is needed to run the school system that includes 10 campuses in the state. Janet Napolitano, the former Department of Homeland Security chief, is in charge of the school system.
Napolitano denied the audit’s claim. She reportedly said the money was held for any unexpected expenses. Her office also denied the amount in the fund.
Elaine Howle, the state auditor who came up with the report, found that from 2012 to 2016 the office looked to raise more funding by inflating estimates. Howle also said that a top staff member in Napolitano’s office improperly screened confidential surveys that were sent to each campus. Howle said answers that were critical of Napolitano’s office were deleted or changed before being sent to auditors.
At the time they were doing this, they were paying their top ten executives a combined $3.7 million. Napolitano said the fund is “only” $38 million and is there for contingencies in a $28 billion state budget. But her office consumes over half a billion a year to educate no one and do no research. They just administrate.
And this is just the tip of iceberg. Just this year, we started learning the truth about Linda Katehi, the infamous chancellor of UC Davis who was partially responsible for the point-blank pepper spraying of student protesters. The graft is breathtaking.
But a few years later, the Sacramento Bee reported that Katehi “contracted with consultants for at least $175,000 to scrub the Internet of negative online postings” on the pepper-spraying and “to improve the reputations of both the university and Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi.” UC Davis signed one 6-month contract with a PR company at a rate of $15,000 per month. An objective described in the company’s proposal was the “eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor.” Scott Shackford called it “another example of colleges no longer fulfilling their roles as defenders of speech and openness, combined with abusive police behavior, with an added dash of the administrative bloat that’s driving up higher education costs.” He added, “in the years since Katehi took over in 2009, the budget for the communications office has grown from $2.93 million to $5.47 million.”
Alas, the squandering of the UC system’s money was far from complete. Embattled since the pepper-spraying incident, Katehi came under additional fire for accepting lucrative positions on the boards of firms that seemed to pose clear conflicts of interest, including a major publisher of college-level textbooks, where she earned more than $400,000 moonlighting over the course of three years, and a for-profit university.
UC Davis finally did get rid of Katehi — after spending over a million dollars investigating the matter (including $400k to Katehi to take a year off while the investigation proceeded). Some of this money came from donations and endowments, true. But money in fungible. And money the UC system spent trying to defend Katehi’s name, trying to scrub her image and then trying to fire her is money they weren’t spending on other more worthy things.
To be fair to the students, they did protest against Katehi and demanded her ouster. But to be really fair, there is a lot of this going on in university systems all over the country. State spending on universities has gone down (after sharp rises in the early part of the century). But federal and private funding is up, as are tuitions. And that sea of money is not going to professors and researchers. If you look at public data for salaries at universities, you’ll find the top money is going to administrators, doctors and sports coaches. Oh, and the consultants the six-figure-salaried administrators call in whenever they have a decision to make.
Tuitions are thousands of dollars higher and debt even bigger so that a host of admins can collect big salaries. That’s money that could be funding scholarships or hiring more professors or simply being put back into the students’ pockets. That’s something that impacts students directly and does greater damage to them than anything Ann Coulter has ever said or ever will.