In a recent op-ed, Nicholas Dirks, Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, reveals the extreme difficulty he and his peers in the American University system face when dealing when problems surrounding the freedom of controversial speakers to address their campuses.
The most recent event to embattle Berkeley, often credited as the birthplace of the so-called Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, was the planned speech by right wing author Ann Coulter. Ms. Coulter was invited at the behest of the Berkeley student group Berkeley College Republicans, but her planned speech almost immediately ran into trouble.
First, the University couldn’t grant her access to the usual venues that are used to accommodate speakers on the campus. Mr. Dirks cited security threats as the primary reason for denying Ms. Coulter the ability to speak in one of the normal venues. Next, the University extended her an invitation to speak in the venue of her choice but at a time when fewer students would be around. This offer was rejected by Ms. Coulter, saying that scheduling her at times when students will not be present was an unacceptable abridgment of her first amendment rights.
Ms. Coulter went against the wishes of Mr. Dirks and the rest of the Berkeley administration, vowing to give the speech at the time and place of her choosing. This enraged many campus activists groups, prompting threats of violence, should the planned speech go forward. These threats finally caused the group that had invited her to withdraw their invitation. A group is now suing the university concerning the violation of the rights of students to hear Ms. Coulter speak.
All the while, Mr. Dirks insists that even his plan to provide Ms. Coulter with a suitable venue at an alternative, less crowded time would have set the university back tens of thousands of dollars.