“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – The First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Republican students at Berkeley College in California invited Ann Coulter, a conservative news commentator, to give a speech on campus. The event was planned for April 27. According to NPR News, after some back and forth with college administrators the event was eventually canceled, with Berkeley officials stating safety as a problem. Milo Yiannopoulos had his speech canceled in January, with Berkeley officials citing the very same reason.
Some people will argue that the first amendment only applies to the government. I would argue that if the government isn’t allowed to prohibit freedom of speech, why should, or why would, private citizens do it? Regardless if it is unconstitutional or not for citizens to censor other citizens, it is simply not moral nor is it ethical.
We have all known unjust laws. Too often we have wanted to scream at the top of our lungs about our justice system. For example, interracial marriages were not fully legal in the US until 1967. On top of that, according to PBS, the very last law prohibiting interracial marriage was only repealed 17 years ago. Interracial couples were often imprisoned for their “crime” of loving someone with a different skin color. Sounds ridiculous now, but the people and authorities reporting these couples for their crimes were all acting within the boundaries of the law.
We also know how most laws are made; usually after something bad has already happened. Going back to the issue of interracial marriages, it was only after Richard and Mildred Loving were hauled out of their homes in the middle of the night and imprisoned, did the Supreme Court rule on the landmark issue.
The point is this; laws do not dictate morality and morality does not always dictate laws. Just because it is or isn’t a law, does not make it right. The same goes for freedom of speech. Just because the first amendment technically regulates the government, does not make it right for citizens to do it. Is it not an oxymoron to regulate our government from gagging us, only to do it to each other?
What is so beautiful about the first amendment is that it gives us so much freedom. It allows the press to write and publish without threats of retaliation; the luxury to criticize its own government, something many countries do not have. It allows each and every one of us to practice any religion we want. It grants us the right to petition the government that we elect. Last, but not least, the right of the people to peaceably assemble.
Students have every right to protest against Coulter’s speech. Protests can be a powerful tool for change if it is done correctly. Many times people resort to protests to get their voices heard, which is a valid point in a time where our government is unresponsive, slow, and methodical. However, someone’s right to peaceably assemble should never trump someone else’s right to freedom of speech. The Bill of Rights work together as one and never against itself. It does not put preference of one above another. The ideal and constitutional adhering situation would have been Coulter speaking at her event with students peacefully protesting outside of it. Or people not showing up and Coulter ends up speaking to a very small audience. Any of these two outcomes would have sent a much more powerful message to Coulter about how her views do not resonate with many of the Berkeley students.
Charlie Barba, an English and Financial Economics major graduating in 2019, said, “I absolutely think she should have been able to speak assuming she wasn’t spitting really hateful language toward any specific groups in her speech. I also think people should be able to protest. The problem lies in hate. Hate from both ends. Hating conservatives serves no purpose, nor does expressing hate toward minority identities simply because one doesn’t understand them.”
Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, has publicly said, “Ann Coulter has just gotten a much bigger platform because someone tried to deny her a chance to speak. My view is, let her speak and just don’t show up. If you don’t like it, don’t show up. ”
Warren may be speaking from experience. In Feb., Republican Senators silenced Elizabeth Warren from reading a letter from Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, on the Senate floor. Needless to say, her involuntary silence became empowerment for many. Using Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s own words against him, social media rallied behind Warren, some women even went as far as getting tattoos saying, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Bernie Sanders, an Independent Senator from Vermont, has also weighed in, “Obviously Ann Coulter’s ― to my mind, off the wall. But you know, people have a right to give their two cents’ outrageous worth, give a speech, without fear of violence and intimidation.”
In Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave, he presents a dialogue between Plato’s brother, Glaucon, and his mentor, the famous philosopher, Socrates. It describes a group of fictitious people who have lived their entire lives chained to a wall of the cave. They can only face one way so they do not see the fire burning behind them. They see shadows on the wall but do not realize it is from the objects passing in front of the fire. One prisoner breaks free and realizes that the shadows are actually objects and even goes outside of the cave. The prisoner runs back inside and explains to the chained prisoners that all their life they have been living a lie. Confused and angry, the others kill the freed prisoner. Socrates’ point is; keep an open mind, do not be like the prisoners in the cave. Regardless of what political party you affiliate with, we need this in our country now more than ever.
Would society not be a much more productive and understanding if people listened to one another? When people refuse to listen, they close the door towards change. They close the door towards dialogue. Hard and honest conversations allow people to better understand one another. Writing folks off does everybody a great disservice. When people refuse others their freedom of speech, or any of their rights for that matter, especially through violence, they are indirectly acting as the tyranny that our founding fathers fled from.
So let us all converse, let us give speeches, let us disagree, and let us defend each other’s rights to do so.