When the National Socialist (Nazi) Party of America scheduled a demonstration in the predominantly Jewish town of Skokie, Ill. in 1977, it sparked outrage among the townspeople before the demonstration commenced. The Illinois Appellate Court and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Nazi Party’s right to march and display the swastika emblazoned on their clothing as symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment.
In these scenarios, the First Amendment serves to protect citizens’ freedom of speech and expression, regardless of how controversial or unpopular they are. In practice, however, only the unpopular opinions, such as those of the Nazi Party, truly need First Amendment protection because popular opinions generally go unchallenged.
Earlier this year, protesters stormed the campus of University of California (UC), Berkeley, outraged that provocateur and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos would be speaking on campus. When protesters started fires, destroyed storefronts and provoked fights, UC Berkeley administration canceled the scheduled speech. What UC Berkeley did is oft-referred to, in legal terms, as a heckler’s veto, in which an entity restricts free speech or expression based off the negative reaction of the masses.
“[UC Berkeley] has catered to certain groups of students’ desires to be shielded from speech that challenges them with a different way of thinking.”
More recently, UC Berkeley canceled the appearance of conservative commentator Ann Coulter. UC Berkeley once again capitulated to the heckler’s veto, justifying the cancellation of Coulter’s appearance by citing concerns for student safety. Despite the cancellation, Coulter stated that she would give her speech as planned, to which they offered her another time to speak, only on a day when there were no classes, at a distant off-campus location and at a time when Coulter was unavailable. Coulter understandably rejected the patronizing offer.
Conservatives, such as those who wanted to listen to Yiannopoulos and Coulter, are considered the political minority on the UC Berkeley campus. Because the First Amendment is aimed at protecting unpopular speech, conservatives at UC Berkeley are the primary beneficiaries of freedom of speech.
However, it is important to point out that by permitting unpopular speech, we do not necessarily need to agree with it.
By allowing the Nazi party to share their message in Skokie, the Supreme Court was not endorsing them; rather, the Supreme Court was ruling that an opinion, no matter how reprehensible, cannot be silenced simply because it is decided that the idea is unpopular or controversial.
“[UC Berkeley] is validating the utterly false premise that a university should be a place where only certain thoughts and certain speech are welcome,” Dhillon said.
Long before Yiannopoulos and Coulter were denied the opportunity to speak at UC Berkeley, the university had a much different philosophy. From 1964-65, the UC Berkeley campus was filled with student protesters, but instead of protesting opposing political views, most of the students were demanding the university to lift the ban against an on-campus political organization.
These protests, which came to be known as parts of the Free Speech Movement, showed America that universities could not restrict the exchange of ideas in a public university setting. Now, it seems as if UC Berkeley has reversed its ideals and began to censor political diversity.
The First Amendment only harbors a few exceptions, none of which impede on controversial political speech. However, some may argue that even though UC Berkeley canceled politically-contentious speakers, the cancellation did not directly violate the First Amendment because Yiannopoulos and Coulter could have made their opinions available to the public through mediums other than speaking at Berkeley. However, this does not account for the lack of access to on-campus conservative speakers.
“[UC Berkeley] is a very liberal school with very liberal people and students do not have the opportunity to hear live speakers on conservative issues in their classrooms, usually,” Dhillon said.
For the most part, both liberals and conservatives have denounced the university’s actions.
The Berkeley Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation, the latter of which asked Coulter to appear at Berkeley, have filed lawsuits against UC Berkeley. Various liberal groups have also criticized UC Berkeley’s censorship of conservative speakers as well.
Even though UC Berkeley was once the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, it seems now that both liberals and conservatives must remind the university of the ideals that inspired the movement just 53 years ago.