December 5, 2022

LEVIN | Cornell After Coulter: The Value of Free Speech

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Last month, Republican pundit Ann Coulter came to Cornell for a sold-out talk at the invitation of campus conservatives. Twenty minutes into her hour-long event, she left frustrated. The continued outcry of protesters in the auditorium drowned out her voice. As long as she was onstage, she could hardly get a word in. The interrupters appeared to operate according to a systematic plan to silence her. Once one had disrupted the proceeding and was escorted out, another began heckling, then another, and still more until she was finally taunted offstage. Although I deeply oppose just about everything Coulter stands for, my support for her right to freely express herself overshadows our stark political differences. I condemn those hecklers. 

Make no mistake, Coulter is a bombastic, bigoted pseudointellectual whose racist, misogynistic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic remarks should invite scrutiny, but even she has a right to speak. For democracy to succeed, America must be a marketplace of ideas where no viewpoint, even one fueled by hatred, can be suppressed simply because others object to it. We should resolve our political differences through rigorous, civic-minded debate, sometimes with those whom we deeply disagree with. Screaming contests aimed to silence are never justified. 

“If you want to really discredit somebody in an academic community, you challenge them intellectually,” Prof. Richard Bensel, government, told me. “Anger doesn’t do that.” Had those hecklers wanted to change the opinions of conservatives at Cornell, they would have disciplined their outrage into a well-reasoned argument. Instead of jeering her offstage, they would have challenged Coulter’s hateful rhetoric during the Q&A segment. Now, Coulter is raking in undeserved publicity from the spectacle. All the interrupters did was harden the opinions of conservative students, many who are not racists and might have been jarred out of their complacency by a frank discussion of Coulter’s bigotry. 

“Even if she was there with a swastika, I’d defend her right to do that,” said Prof. Nadine Strossen, New York Law School, an expert in constitutional law. Strossen is the former president of the ACLU and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Of course, registered clubs at Cornell should exercise good judgment when considering which speakers to have. Thus, they should avoid racists, Coulter included. But once a talk has begun, no matter what the speaker stands for, that speaker has a fundamental right to present even unpopular opinions on campus — a right that nobody should be able to revoke without consequence.

To student protesters who stymied Coulter’s speech, I say that disagreeing with someone cannot justify censorship. History tells us as much. Around 100 years ago, protestors of America’s involvement in the First World War were penalized for their dissent and public school educators could not teach human evolution. Seventy years ago, McCarthyists discriminated openly against those whom they suspected to be Communists, barring them from positions of authority in the private and public sectors. Sixty years ago, public schools prohibited students from wearing armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. Every American movement to suppress free expression has ultimately failed, earning only the contempt of history. Now, book-banning campaigns are sweeping America’s public schools, and our polarized politics has inculcated the idea in our youth that speech suppression is a worthwhile response to opponents (two-thirds of college students think it is acceptable to silence controversial speakers, and nearly one-fourth support using violence to that end, according to a 2021 study conducted by FIRE, a bipartisan free speech advocacy group).

It is not a matter of whether we agree with somebody when we recognize their right to free speech. It is about principle. It is a matter of preserving a tenet of democracy so central that every American depends on it, yet many take it for granted. It is not the case everywhere that one can speak freely without the threat of retribution. In Iran, over 15,000 have been detained for demonstrating against the country’s despotic government after the regime’s so-called morality police allegedly killed a 22-year-old woman for wearing a hijab incorrectly. In Thailand, insulting the king is criminal. In China, human rights defenders go missing when the government deems their speech threatening. Where there exists a mechanistic approach to silencing dissent, tyranny often results. That is why it is necessary to ensure that even hatemongers whose ideas we loathe retain their right to express themselves. If we establish the principle that we can exclude voices we disapprove of, when those with whom we disagree are in a position to silence us, they will. I wonder how the hecklers would feel were conservatives to stifle a climate change or human rights symposium.

While we should celebrate unfettered speech as the lifeblood of higher learning, we should also question why conservative students misguidedly believe that Coulter and other narrow-minded reactionaries offer educated commentary on complex social issues. I think I know part of the answer. Of all the professors in Cornell’s government department, there is not a single registered Republican, Prof. Bensel noted. We live in a two-party system, but higher education is markedly one-sided. In the absence of conservative scholars of merit, many Republican students have embraced a highly-marketable brand of conservatism fronted by deceiving orators who, with clever slogans and conspiracy theories, trick audiences into accepting prejudice as truth. 

When I asked Cornell Republicans President Avery Bower ’23, who helped with the event, how he would characterize Coulter’s past racist diatribes, he said that “some of her comments weren’t necessarily the best.” I was taken aback by how Bower’s tactical positioning replaced what should have been moral revulsion. His half-hearted disavowal demonstrates my broader point that Republican students have been desensitized to racism by the likes of Coulter, and higher education has failed to provide them with a rational alternative. This is no anomaly: nationally, colleges and universities employ six times as many liberal professors as conservatives. In the Northeast, that disparity is far greater.

Institutions of higher education should be neutral forums of diverse political thought. Instead, they are deeply partisan, and Republicans are consistently excluded. Hiring more good-faith conservative professors would prevent Coulter from capitalizing on the ignorance of disenfranchised students. But as unsatisfying as it is, we should still make allowance for that ignorance because it may never disappear altogether, and censorship is certainly no solution. In academia, when we deprive one person of speech because we find it reprehensible, we begin to construct an orthodoxy of what can and cannot be said, an inflexible pedagogy that rewards conformists and punishes dissenters. That vision of education is no education at all. I believe in a more constructive approach where racist ideologues are disproven carefully with facts rather than outshouted and banned. 

Gabriel Levin (he/him) is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Almost Fit to Print runs every other Monday this semester.