On April 27, far-right polemicist Ann Coulter was scheduled to give a speech at the University of California at Berkeley. After a lot of back-and-forth, during which Coulter was disinvited, re-invited and rescheduled, the group that sponsored her ultimately backed out. Security concerns, including a near-guarantee of violence, prompted both Coulter and the Young America’s Foundation to decide that her appearance would jeopardize people’s well-being. In a statement, Coulter said, “It’s a sad day for free speech.”
UC Berkeley has recently been, as it was in the 1960s, the site of major protests. In February the Trump-supporting alt-right clashed with antifascists, or antifas, over an appearance by former Breitbart editor and professional far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos. On April 15, a day of nationwide protests against President Trump, Trump supporters from fringe white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups met antifas for a violent street brawl. With Coulter, the concern was another such outbreak of violence.
The popular narrative, pushed by Coulter and the alt-right, is that leftists want to shut down free speech. Coulter, Yiannopoulos, and alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer fixate on college campuses as places where the open exchange of ideas has slowed or stopped completely. For daring to teach things that fall outside conservative orthodoxy – like sociology, alternative economic models, climate science, evolutionary biology, and actual American history – academia has been the bane of Republican existence for some time.
It’s precisely because they are educated that college students protest the likes of Coulter, Yiannopoulos and Spencer. In varying degrees, all three could be characterized as white supremacists. And that’s what the violence is about. The debate on white supremacy was not tabled, to be revisited at regular intervals. It’s a deadly ideology that’s been thoroughly discredited by both science and basic humanity. The rest of America is not obligated to help white supremacy crawl out from under its rock.
Coulter and the alt-right haven’t had their right to free speech infringed. These people speak all the time. CNN is airing a special with Richard Spencer and Coulter regularly appears on FOX News. Yiannopoulos has more than 2.1 million followers on Facebook and was the mascot of Breitbart. A Simon & Schuster book deal fell through and his position at Breitbart was terminated over his impassioned defense of pedophilia, not because leftists protested his campy reinvention of fascism.
What’s at issue with these speakers is their right to a platform. That’s separate from freedom of speech. Coulter may not have gotten to speak at UC Berkeley, but neither did hundreds of millions of other Americans. The First Amendment guarantees the right to say what you want, so long as it isn’t a threat or an incitement of panic. It doesn’t guarantee the right to be heard.
Some argue that the alt-right’s speech is threatening. Spencer, the most explicitly racist of the three, calls for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and is essentially a neo-Nazi. The common goal of Spencer, Coulter and Yiannopoulos is to justify systematic oppression. First they argue that white men are oppressed, then they demand black and brown people return something – like America, say – to white people. They provide an intellectual framework that dehumanizes and, in more deranged minds, inspires violence against immigrants and people of color.
It’s for this reason that antifa are prepared to use violence to deny them a platform. But the violence doesn’t all come from the left, nor does it originate there. For some on the alt-right, protests like those at Berkeley are exciting precisely because they represent an opportunity to instigate street-level clashes with leftists.
One such group, Proud Boys, recently teamed with another, the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, to launch a “military division” for the alt-right. Formed by ultra-right nationalist Gavin McInnes, membership in the Proud Boys requires tattoos, a beat-down by other group members, and abstention from masturbation. FOAK founder Kyle Chapman declared, “We don’t fear the fight. We are the fight.” This fascist political street gang actively seeks out brawls with leftists. Violence and speech suppression is in its DNA.
There is an important free speech issue going on, but it’s not in Berkeley. Recently the Trump Administration announced it’s seeking the arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, despite Assange becoming an alt-right hero in 2016 for leaking information about Hillary Clinton. If free speech was the issue motivating Coulter, Yiannopoulos and McInnes, they’d be giving impassioned defenses of Assange, Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers. This demonstrates clearly that the issue isn’t free speech – it’s white nationalism.
Peaceful demonstration is the best tactic to protest invited speakers, but peace can be difficult to maintain when fascist groups like the Proud Boys use violence as a recruitment tool for pent-up white men. And so long as the media blames the left for it, the violence will continue to serve the alt-right’s cause. But just because detestable speech is protected by the First Amendment doesn’t mean white nationalists are owed a platform.