Berkeley should let Ann Coulter speak

After the University of California, Berkeley disinvited conservative firebrand Ann Coulter from her scheduled speaking engagement over fears of violent protests, the blogosphere was alight with hundreds of think pieces. Was Berkeley violating Coulter’s First Amendment rights? Were the administration’s actions justified? Was Coulter smart to call its bluff and announce she’d be speaking anyway? The opinions were endless.

I’m much more sympathetic to the view that the university should let her speak. Students are in university to be exposed to different points of view. Even if you believe that Coulter’s ideology is wrong, there is no denying that it represents an influential strand in the political discourse. For students to go through college without understanding her views, unfiltered through caricatures in the media, does them a disservice in how effectively they are able to understand their world.

Coulter has had an outsized influence in politics for decades. She is not some low-impact intellectual lightweight whom students could avoid without significant gaps in their worldview. Coulter worked as a lawyer on the Paula Jones case; she wrote a New York Times bestseller that argued for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Without Coulter, it is possible, even likely, that he wouldn’t have been impeached. In the following years, Coulter wrote bestseller after bestseller. Her 2015 book Adios America was instrumental in forming the immigration policy on which President Donald Trump campaigned. You can disagree with this policy, but to ignore her arguments would be to criticize it blindly, unpersuasively, and without engaging the context in which such ideas were formed.

There are some ideas that don’t warrant a debate in the public sphere. We no longer wonder whether the smaller brains of women mean that they cannot learn Greek and thus should not be admitted to institutions of higher learning. The academic success of women have proved these arguments thoroughly unfounded, so it would be redundant for a university to host a speaker who holds these views. Coulter’s ideas do not fit this category. She argues for things like not bombing Syria or being careful our immigration policies don’t depress wages. She is a controversial figure, but her ideas have resonance beyond that which most college undergraduates could easily dismiss. It would be worthwhile for them to hear her talk, if only to see another perspective on assumptions they take for granted.

The debate over letting Coulter speak reminds me of when someone told me not to read Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. He said it was terrible, though he had not read it himself. Its taboo nature excited me, so I read it, as well as her other books Atlas Shrugged and Anthem. They were interesting. They didn’t turn me into an Objectivist, but I was grateful for the level of intellectual stimulation they spurred. Without having been exposed to these ideas in full, I might be less able to defend my own moral compass, which I honed partially in opposition to Rand’s philosophy. Basically everyone except for Paul Ryan makes fun of the books, but I don’t know how convincing their vitriol is if they haven’t read the primary source.

I say this mostly to my younger self, for, indeed, I used to view Coulter with similar vitriol based on second-hand information. Her views posed such a threat to mine that I sought out one-star reviews of her books on Amazon, so I could rest assured of their lack of intellectual value. I believed the disingenuous reporting as to her outrageous comments, which were considerably less outrageous in context. Over time, however, I grew suspicious of the coverage she received. One journalist pointed out a mistake Coulter made in one of her books and claimed it was indicative of the overall nature of her work: shoddy and fact-challenged. The evidence the journalist linked to, however, was an article by Coulter herself explaining the mistake and adding that it was the only one that her critics were able to identify. That the journalist linked to this page shows that he had access to material that undermined his argument and used it in bad faith, pretending it said something to the contrary and hoping that people would not check.

Growing up watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert mercilessly skewer the GOP, I needed Coulter to conform to the caricature they created. When she did not, I was taken aback. I had a similar reaction reading conservative thinker Thomas Sowell in my sophomore year of college. I discovered legitimate criticisms of popular liberal ideas that I had accepted wholesale, never knowing that they were not self-evident fact. This being the first time I had encountered these criticisms, I was unequipped to defend against them. I bowed to Sowell’s intellectual superiority and bought several of his books.

All this is to say that we cannot and should not insulate ourselves from opposing views. If Berkeley students disagree with Coulter, they should let her speak and challenge her during the Q&A session. They may be surprised to learn that Coulter is more of a rational actor than they believed. This discovery may in turn lead to a less divided student body, with students addressing the merits of arguments they hadn’t even known existed.

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