Ann Coulter, Berkeley, and YAF

Posted: May 16, 2017 12:01 AM
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Ann Coulter, Berkeley, and YAF

Occasionally, my liberal friends who despise Ann Coulter will bring up her name in my presence – as if they are defying me to defend her. On those occasions, I always offer up a partial defense of Ann. I tell them she is brilliant – so much so that she could have been the next William F. Buckley. But I also add that her almost pathological need for publicity has badly damaged her credibility over the years. On occasions, it has also damaged the conservative movement. More recently, it has inflicted damage on some friends of mine who run an organization to which I am deeply indebted.

Most people reading this column have followed the news about Ann Coulter's cancelled appearance on the University of California, Berkeley campus, which was originally sponsored by Young America's Foundation (YAF). The event YAF had originally agreed to sponsor was intended to be just like the ones sponsored by YAF in the past. Both Coulter and her sponsors were expecting to be assigned to a classroom or lecture hall, as is the norm for guest lectures at Berkeley.

Unfortunately, unlike past appearances, corrupt university administrators refused to assign or allow a lecture hall to be scheduled for the speech. This raised a serious constitutional issue. In fact, the refusal constituted a transparent effort to engage in prior restraint of speech based on the speaker’s controversial viewpoints. Thankfully, YAF has responded appropriately with a federal lawsuit challenging Berkeley’s blatant attempt to abridge the First Amendment.

After it became clear that Berkeley administrators had decided that they would not assign a room in time for students to promote the event, Coulter decided to take matters into her own hands. This involved going to the press without consulting her student hosts. In a series of media interviews, she announced that she was going to appear at Berkeley even though they had assigned no lecture hall. Her plan was to appear at Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza and do an open-air speech with a megaphone. This was a serious error in judgment on Coulter’s behalf for at least two reasons:

1. An open-air speech at Sproul Plaza was nothing short of an invitation to mass violence. By announcing this several days in advance, Coulter was doing more than just inviting violent leftists to disrupt her speech. She was also inviting members of the alt-right to come confront them on their own turf. It is possible that the event hosts could have provided security to protect Coulter. But there was no way that they could have prevented widespread violence that likely would have resulted in harm to innocent bystanders, including Berkeley students.

2. An open-air speech at Sproul Plaza would have been a capitulation in the fight for conservatives to have equal access to lecture halls and classrooms at Berkeley. In my years of working with student activists, I have always told them to refuse to take a seat at the back of the bus when campus administrators try to violate their rights. Coulter’s decision to accept the refusal to assign a room and instead move into an uncontrolled outdoor venue was tantamount to accepting Berkeley’s refusal to allow conservatives to occupy a seat at the front of the bus. It was good publicity for Ann in the short term. It was very bad precedent for other conservative speakers in the long term.

After “defying” Berkeley administrators with her open-air speech ploy, Coulter then made another unilateral decision - this time, not to appear at Berkeley at all. This is the point in the controversy where she inflicted much greater damage on the conservative movement by falsely claiming that Young America's Foundation "ordered" her not to go.

This claim is preposterous. In fact, it is simply bizarre. YAF had absolutely no authority to "order" Ann Coulter to go or avoid going anywhere. In all likelihood, Coulter backed out because she realized she was committing to an unwise and dangerous course of action. Thus, she needed someone to blame for her reversal and she threw her fellow conservatives under the bus. In fact, she even went to the absurd extreme of telling people that YAF had “sided” with Berkeley. The falsity of Coulter’s claim is easily established by noting that YAF was suing Berkeley in federal court at the precise moment Coulter made that statement. In fact, YAF is still suing them as I write this column.

In the past, I have had many opportunities to speak for YAF. On a couple of occasions there were legitimate threats of violence prior to those events. For example, University of New Hampshire students broke into glass display cases in order to spray swastikas on YAF posters advertising a speech I was scheduled to give (ironically on the subject of hypocrisy in the diversity movement). There were also rumors that activists planned to physically assault me (with food, of all things) after the event. Working together with YAF and my student hosts we secured armed university police security for the event and the violence was thwarted. I could give other examples but this one suffices to show that YAF does not simply bail out of events when there is a possibility of violence.

This unfortunate episode with Coulter should serve as a reminder that things work best when a speaker works together with his or her sponsors. After all, without their generous support our appearances on college campuses would not even be possible. YAF does not deserve to be thrown under the bus by Ann Coulter. In fact, they deserve an apology.

Of course, no apology will be forthcoming from Ann. It is simply up to conservatives to see through her selfish motives and continue to support the Young America’s Foundation. If we do not, the result will be less rather than more conservative speech on our nation’s campuses.