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American Universities Grapple with Limits of Free Speech

Over the last two years, American universities have been besieged by a polarized social and political climate that has brought to the forefront various serious questions about the role that institutions of higher education, especially those receiving public funding dollars, should have in guaranteeing free speech.

Recently, these issues have once again been thrust into the national spotlight with the events surrounding a planned speech by right-wing author Ann Coulter on the Campus of the University of California, Berkely. The author has been unafraid to take controversial positions over her career, a move that has served her well, propelling many of her books to rank on the New York Times bestseller list.

But the current questions are not ones of political viewpoint or soundness of arguments. Ms. Coulter forced to withdraw from her planned speaking engagement when the University was unable to accommodate her in a suitable venue and her original sponsors, the Berkeley College Republicans, simultaneously withdrew their invitation, amid fears of violence. The irony is that Berkeley was the birthplace of the so-called Free Speech Movement, a movement started in the 1960s, partially with the aim of promoting the ability of all speakers, no matter their viewpoints, to be permitted access to America’s university campuses.

This latest cancellation of a speaker at Berkeley comes amid a series of similar incidents. Last year, another speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos, also characterized as conservative, was likewise denied a platform at the college. That time, however, his speech was cut short by rioters who had apparently come from off-campus solely for the purpose of disrupting Mr. Yiannopoulos’ speech.

This has raised questions as to the responsibilities Berkeley itself has to guarantee a platform to all speakers. Conservative activists have pointed to the multiple instances of speakers being denied as evidence that the college administration is biased in favor of more liberal speakers.

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