More than 1,500 students gathered on the steps of Sproul Hall at the University of California, Berkeley Feb. 1, forcing then-editor of Breitbart News Milo Yiannopoulos to cancel a scheduled speech and reinvigorating the debate on free speech. While vocalized opposition to campus speakers is not a new phenomenon, the distinct violent nature of the protests — in which the crowd set fires and threw rocks at law enforcement officers — captured the attention of the world.
Free speech, whether or not we agree with what is being said, has always been a bastion of democracy. Universities should honor this principle and allow individuals of various beliefs, no matter how controversial, to speak.
Yet this does not mean we are powerless in advancing our own ideas of what is just. Instead of intimidating speakers into cancelling their talks, we should allow them to express their opinions and, if need be, prove them wrong in an intellectual and professional manner.
In response to news that a UC Berkeley speech scheduled by anti-immigrant author Ann Coulter was cancelled due to security concerns, Senator Bernie Sanders said, “People have a right to give their two cents-worth, [to] give a speech, without fear of violence and intimidation.” He said it is “a sign of intellectual weakness” to “boo, or shut her down, or prevent her from coming.” Sanders asked, “What are you afraid of — her ideas? Ask her the hard questions. Confront her intellectually.”
It’s not necessary to defend the ideas of insensitive and, at times, hateful speakers. When former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University in 2007, few supported his claims that homosexuals do not exist in Iran and thus do not deserve rights. Nonetheless, his visit provided a unique and eye-opening experience to students, proving that the beliefs we hold are not always shared by all.
College campuses are known to be, on average, more liberal than the rest of the country — refusing to allow discussion of ideas that exist beyond the narrow scope of many students prevents those students from understanding reality. There are countless Ahmadinejads and Coulters around the world, and pretending otherwise helps no one. If students are to operate in the real world, then they must also be exposed to the different ideas that exist there.