ACLU's Statement About Ann Coulter Is A Great Lesson For Liberals On Free Speech

"UC Berkeley cannot limit speech because of its content or because of the viewpoint it espouses."

As news broke that Ann Coulter would be canceling her speaking engagement at the University of California, Berkeley, political partisans cheered and jeered.

Many liberals who had protested the event, some who had even threatened to take violent action, saw it as a victory. Conservatives and members of the alt-right who supported Coulter — despite her controversial political commentary — thought the news was further proof of suppression of free speech. 

Without question, political figures like Coulter are a conundrum for liberal activists. On one hand, liberals — especially those at Berkeley — aspire to represent the pinnacle of free speech. On the other hand, some of Coulter's political punditry is intentionally and explicitly offensive, so much so that some could be deemed hate speech. And plenty of others are convinced her speaking tours are intentionally provocative as a move to solicit free publicity and sell books

But after numerous threats of riots and/or violence, Coulter and her sponsors for the event backed out of the speech. One might expect that an organization like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which frequently fights for minority and LGBTQ rights, would have supported such a development. Instead, though, they gave everyone a lesson in what protecting liberties really means.

"UC Berkeley cannot limit speech because of its content or because of the viewpoint it espouses," the ACLU of northern California said. "Nor can it help others to do so by canceling, delaying, or moving an event in reaction to threats of disruption or violence, unless doing so is truly necessary to preserve public safety or some other compelling government interest."

Some weren't sold by ACLU's response.

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While liberals might be incensed by the perception the ACLU is defending Coulter, those in the ACLU are doing exactly what they set out to do: defend civil liberties. 

"Hateful speech has consequences, particularly for people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and others who have been historically marginalized," David Cole, the ACLU's national legal director, said in a statement. "But if the government gets to decide which speech counts as hate speech, the powers that be may later feel free to censor any speech they don't like.

As Eugene Volokh recently wrote in The Washington Post, hate speech is, in fact, protected by the First Amendment: "One is as free to condemn, for instance, Islam — or Muslims, or Jews, or blacks, or whites, or illegal immigrants, or native-born citizens — as one is to condemn capitalism or socialism or Democrats or Republicans."

What is not protected are threats of violence, like the kind that was coming from some people who planned to protest Coulter's arrival on campus. 

Along with doing their civic duty in protecting Coulter's right to speak, Cole also laid down a shrewd point about combatting speech you don't like or speech you deem hate speech. Instead of banning it, he said, people opposed to Coulter should combat it with better arguments. 

"For the future of our democracy, we must protect bigoted speech from government censorship," Cole said in a statement released by ACLU. "On college campuses, that means that the best way to combat hateful speech is through counter-speech, vigorous and creative protest, and debate, not threats of violence or censorship."

Cover photo: Shutterstock / Christopher Halloran

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