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Why I invited Ann Coulter to speak at Berkeley

Pranav Jandhyala, Founder of BridgeUSA at Berkeley | April 27, 2017

I founded BridgeUSA, the nonpartisan organization that invited Ann Coulter to the University of California at Berkeley’s campus. Our organization hopes to create a future in which our campus and our country are venues for free and fair political discussion and debate from all sides. We stand for the preservation of spaces where political ideas can be shared and challenged without fear of violence.

Ann CoulterTo that end, we decided to bring Coulter to Berkeley today to speak to a body of mainly liberal students on immigration. Unfortunately, threatened attacks from extremist groups forced the cancellation of this event. Let’s be clear: Blame for the cancellation of Coulter’s speech does not rest solely on the shoulders of any individual. The administration, student groups including ours, external resistance groups and the media all made mistakes that need to be corrected. Fundamentally, though, the system of political dialogue and debate is broken, not just on this campus, but across the nation.

We formed our organization earlier this year after the infamous Milo Yiannopoulos event here, where an incendiary speaker, violent rioters and a divided nation combined to create the perfect storm of political controversy. The university canceled a speech in February by Yiannopoulos, a prominent conservative writer, after intense protests that led to a campuswide “shelter in place” order. That day, instigation and violence replaced mediation and conversation — and we wanted to repair this breakdown in communication. Our goal since then has been to facilitate dialogue between political opposites, allowing everyone to engage with and understand opposing viewpoints. We have so far been successful in hosting forum sessions and debates on a series of different issues. We’ve hosted five events in about two months. Many students were immediately interested in our mission, and our membership has expanded rapidly — we have 40 officers and about 150 to 200 members.

Coulter was the choice of conservative groups on campus to represent their perspective in a larger campus debate about illegal immigration we were hosting. Liberal groups on campus had chosen Maria Echaveste, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. She spoke on April 17 and answered questions from conservative students in the audience.

Coulter’s ideas have an audience, and though most members of our group disagree with her, we recognize the following she draws. We also understand that many see her as an inflammatory figure with destructive beliefs that disqualify her from appearing at an institution of higher learning. But we believe the only productive way to fight views one sees as bad or dangerous is with better views. So we chose to get involved and include Coulter in our speaker series on immigration so students could hear, and actively challenge, her views. We planned for the event to be a debate-style, question-and-answer session with rebuttals to allow for a dialogue. Coulter would have fielded tough questions about her views from students in the audience, and we would have done our part to ensure that she would answer those questions in their entirety and give students the opportunity to respond. Rather than repeating the failures of Yiannopoulos’s event, we wanted to create a national example for what free discourse and the questioning of ideas should look like here at Berkeley, the home of the free speech movement 50 years ago.

Coulter protest posterFree speech isn’t about provocation, violence, publicity stunts, selling books or testing limits. At their best, universities start and nurture conversations that advance dialogue and understanding further. Regrettably, the developments surrounding this event led it to fall out of line with our beliefs as an organization.

National media coverage of Coulter’s visit mostly overlooked BridgeUSA’s role and our plan for the event, instead reporting that the incident was a repeat of the Yiannopoulos fracas — exactly what we set out to avoid. And as the tensions between student safety and free speech entered the justice system, Yiannopoulos himself announced that he would be organizing a “free speech week” on Sproul Plaza where he and his supporters would attack a new perceived “enemy of free speech” every day. It pains me to see our campus being used as a pulpit for bad actors, people whose goal is to elevate themselves by inciting violence, without a thought for the safety of students who live and attend school here.

Sproul Plaza is becoming a battleground, and the ones who are left to pick up the bill of consequences is the Berkeley student body, which is vilified every day in the press for destruction that outside groups are responsible for. Antifa and other “black-bloc” groups that are able to organize do so far beyond the perimeters of our campus, and they receive an insignificant amount of support from Berkeley students, if any. But in national news, all that’s seen is violence and destruction being used to censor speech.

What disheartens me is seeing the words “free speech” used as a tool to garner headlines and publicity. The whole purpose behind the idea of free speech has been lost. What’s happening on our campus is no longer about advancing discourse or trying to reach a larger truth and understanding about policy issues so that better decisions can be made. It’s just a furious chase to get in front of the news cameras and be trending on Twitter and Facebook.

Conservative groups, in their attempt to frame this complex series of events as a “free speech battle” by suing Berkeley’s administration, have used the label of free speech as a tool for publicity. Our organization prides itself on the values of free inquiry and discourse, yet we understand the impossible trade-off that the university faces: the administration is caught between upholding its commitment to free speech and its responsibility for student safety.

The administration attempted to work with us, to propose alternative dates this semester and next semester where a defensible venue would be available. In balancing the concerns of protecting students and allowing peaceful protest, they never backed down from their commitment to help us bring Coulter to campus. It is easy and expedient to blame the university in this situation, but that avoids the actual problem. The true issue here is not the way that the university handled this situation; rather, it is the fact that this trade-off between student safety and free speech even exists in the first place.

It’s a scary situation when the university cannot perfectly perform its duty, when it cannot guarantee the safety of all speakers at all times in all places. Those who would threaten student safety and destroy our campus to silence speech they disagree with are culpable for the existence of this new trade-off. And violence and threats which restrict the free exchange of ideas constitute fascism under the banner of anti-fascism.

We challenge the Berkeley administration, the Berkeley College Republicans and Coulter to work collaboratively and address the cancellation of the event and the current political climate. These respective parties continue to affirm their commitment to free speech, but they have demonstrated minimal effort in speaking freely with one another. Civil discussions are necessary to progress our democracy and address pressing points of contention.

We can alleviate polarization if we come to the table to talk, but until then, there is no constructive way forward. Threatening violence does not change minds, and instigating controversy for publicity does not fix a broken system. We, as a community, have to recognize that there is a world outside of Berkeley: How can we promote what we believe if we are associated with images of violence? We need to act with the knowledge that everyone is watching.

We refuse to meet speech with violence and oppression. We refuse to invoke the right to free speech to inflame, attack and generate publicity. We refuse to accept the current status quo surrounding speech on university campuses across the country. Instead, we will continue to pursue our mission of creating environments in which students can engage with their peers as free thinkers, express their opinions without fear and have their beliefs, suppositions and prejudices challenged rather than dismissed. Only through these means can we begin to bridge the gap brought on by polarization and allow for a free exchange of political ideas.

Comments to “Why I invited Ann Coulter to speak at Berkeley

  1. The Administration at Berkeley need to grow a pair. It is pathetic that they are not teaching their students the ability to tolerate and respect alternate perspectives and speakers. It is imperative that Universities take a neutral stance and let the chips fall where they may, along with alowing those trained to do so perform the act of protection and restraint enforcement.

    Our youth, including all ethnicities, are privileged to attend any higher education facility in America, and all of those students that protested with violence should have been arrested, expelled, and imprisoned. It’s just that simple.

  2. Why not invite someone who actually has something to offer to the debate, such as Dr. Condoleezza Rice? Ms. Coulter is at best a media personality with little to offer other than bluster. Here are just a few of the quotes attributed to Ms. Coulter:

    1.) “There’s a cultural acceptance of child rape in Latino culture that doesn’t exist in even the most dysfunctional American ghettos. When it comes to child rape, the whole family gets involved.”

    2.) “A lot of people are upset when I talk about Mexican child rapes, Muslims clitorectomies, Muslim honor killings…white people don’t do that. America is not used to these types of crimes. We are bringing in cultures where child rape is very common.”

    3.) “These unaccompanied children (anchor babies) we [America] have, you know, hundreds of these [immigrants] being reported they have never seen a flushed toilet before. It is simply a fact; we are bringing in peasant cultures.”

    4.) “If we don’t cut off bringing in millions and millions of these very backward cultures, we won’t have America again.”

    5.) “I’ve never understood the argument ‘we’re going to war for oil.’ We need oil. Why shouldn’t we go to war for oil, we need it…drop a nuc, daisy cutter, it doesn’t matter.”

    6.) “If we took away women’s right to vote, we’d never have to worry about another democrat president. It’s kind of a pipe dream. It’s a personal fantasy of mine.”

    7.) “It’s going to be a thousand years of darkness if this country stops being this country and we just become a second Mexico, which is where we’re heading right now.

    If you think that Berkeley or any community in the United States is somehow flawed because it resists such a speaker as Ms. Coulter, I would encourage a little self-reflection. And some better speaker selection for next time.

  3. Why not organize these events as debates between two people, giving strict time limits and
    prohibiting interruption? (Notice that wouldn’t have worked between the presidential candidates.)

    That way no one can complain about not are not being heard, or not having their disagreements aired.

    What is a problem is that the most incendiary types might not want debates, but that’s their loss.

    It is not clear what the noisy audiences would do in response to this format, but it would be worth
    finding out. Too expensive??

  4. The freedom of speech is broken. The body that supposed to protect us from very few radicals (that chose violence as their expression language) is not capable to function. We tied their hands. Violence can’t be resolved with nice words only. Need to show physical strength, limit their ability to act.

  5. Tens of millions of Americans fought and died to bring us our freedoms and now liberals on campuses are trampling on those freedoms. Shame on you!

  6. I applaud Pranov’s article and the mission of BridgeUSA. As our country grows more and more polarized and unable to agree to what is fact, having opposite sides come together and talk and listen without violence and with a goal of respectful treatment for all, especially towards those with whom we gravely disagree, then there is a chance to reverse this dangerous growing polarization. Thank you to all involved in this work!!

  7. Ann Coulter, is mostly just provocative, not deeply knowledgeable. Conservative experts on immigration with depth of knowledge would likely have been welcomed for the types of discussion you like to host. For example, The Heritage Foundation, has a whole list of qualified people: . A quick search of conservative think-tanks brings up scores of possible speakers on the topic who would accomplish your goal.

    Who were the non-controversial speakers you’ve already invited?

    • Its only provocative to you, because you stand for censorship and do not want to hear alternative thoughts. I dont agree with Ms Coulter, but I will always agree with her right to say it. Otherwise the campus is under siege from Nazis and has no academic value for the future.

      If this condition prevails, rating of this great Campus will plummet and should.

      • The nazis were allowed to spew their hate- maybe millions of people would have been saved had there been some sort of censorship- I don’t ever think it is the government’s job to enact censorship, they should let anybody speak, but if people spew such hate, like Anne Coulter’s statements of how people of color are as evil as the governments that reign over them, then that brings in the conversation of dehumanization, which could easily lead to another genocide- which I am sure the germans thought was something never to return to western society before the Nazi period. Nobody should let it happen again, but I understand that the government should not prevent things from happening which threaten the people, because that leads into a slippery slope of tyranny and control over the press, but the people themselves should do the job of honest debate, without actual hatred towards a people.

  8. Although it is claimed the perps of violence and rioting ARE NOT UC Berkeley students, some of them are. The Administration and the Chief of Police inaction, shows the nation what type of University UC Berkeley is.

  9. Why not request and implement security scenarios from experts?
    Surely there are plenty of security experts in the Bay Area
    who could design security scenarios employing university and state and county officers
    along with student and volunteer monitors
    which properly deployed would allow polarizing, demagogic speakers to spew their vile in a public forum
    whilst the campus and city and public is kept safe.

  10. When you run for political office, and I sincerely hope you do, I will not only vote for you, I will work on your campaign.

  11. As a Berkeley graduate I am appalled by the inaction of the police, the administration and the State of California to protect Free Speech. I think the school should be defunded and I hope it is.

    • This is dumb. How is it fair that the actions of a few get to interfere with the rest of us trying to get quality education??

  12. Conservatives need to rise up against those fascist liberal charachters. This crowd has infected American society whether it be the schools, media and politics. When conservatives rise up against the facist then the facist will fold. Facist mentality was ramped in Germany and I suspwct rhat Hitler was a facist. Now we that here in America. Facist do not believe in “Freedom of Speach” and those that say they do are nothing more than hypocrites. Just thoughts here from one of many.

    • You’re best attempt at freedom of speech will not keep a man from knocking you out if you disrespect his mother.

  13. It is very sad that The University of California at Berkeley could not have Ann Coulter speak, because of violence from the left. Her 1st Amendment right has not been upheld. My voice, as a tax paying adult, has been smothered because of fear from the left. When discourse is no longer challenged and debated, but is snuffed out in hate and fear and violence, we are no longer a free people.
    This is a sad day for America.

  14. Pranav, I live in the area, and hate to see the media or anyone else portray UC Berkeley students as the perps of violence and rioting. It’s not true. I attended the City College of San Francisco 20 years ago and never felt intimidated by my speech or papers in my classes. But now, wow. The academic climate has changed in an unhealthy direction. Improve for next semester, bring in some good speakers, and continue what you are doing. You all are doing a great service for our country.

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