When news broke that the University of California, Berkeley was trying to reschedule Ann Coulter’s speech due to threats of violence, the Twittersphere exploded. Here was yet another link in a long chain of outrage over conservatives who have been blocked from speaking on college campuses.
Her defenders made for strange bedfellows, with people from the left and right, fans and foes alike, expressing disappointment in the Berkeley administration and student body. Perhaps the most surprising demonstration of support came from Senator Bernie Sanders who told the Huffington Post, “obviously Ann Coulter is outrageous—to my mind, off the wall. But you know, people have a right to give their two-cents-worth, give a speech, without fear of violence and intimidation.”
He’s right, of course, as was Salman Rushdie when he said that “one of the problems with defending free speech is you often have to defend people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting.”
All three of those labels apply to Ann Coulter. But they also apply to Linda Sarsour, another woman whose right to speak has been challenged this week. Sarsour supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign that seeks the destruction of the State of Israel. She’s tweeted that “nothing is creepier than Zionism.” I don’t like the things that she says, but speech that appeals to everyone is rarely in need of protecting.
CUNY’s decision to invite Sarsour to give the commencement address was bizarre and misguided. Graduations are a time for unity, and the university should have had the foresight not to invite such a divisive and controversial speaker. But they did. She was no more entitled to this platform than Coulter was to what should have been hers at Berkley– but they were both offered these platforms all the same. If we cannot defend both of these women, we should not be defending either. Being outrageous, unpleasant, or disgusting should not mitigate the right to speak freely.