US college students have stopped arguing about free speech and started suing over it

Political commentator Anne Coulter makes an address.
Political commentator Anne Coulter makes an address.
Image: Reuters/Jim Bourg
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Just as the fallout over Milo Yiannopoulos is starting to ebb, the University of California-Berkeley finds itself at the center of yet another controversy over free speech and liberal campus culture.

Back in February, a group of students invited the provocative, right-wing Yiannopoulos to come speak, but his appearance on the predominately liberal campus was met with riotous protests. Berkeley canceled the speech at the last minute due to safety concerns; the move was nonetheless condemned by some—including US president Donald Trump—as a free-speech shutdown.

Last week, citing similar safety issues, the school canceled an upcoming appearance from conservative author Ann Coulter. The students who invited her are now suing over it.

By declining to host Coulter for her planned speech this Thursday, Berkeley is trying to “restrict and stifle the speech of conservative students whose voices fall beyond the campus political orthodoxy,” the Berkeley College Republicans—the same group that invited Yiannopoulos—claim in the lawsuit (pdf), which was filed in San Francisco yesterday. Though the school offered to have Coulter speak next week at a “protectable venue” it said it’d found, the group rejected the alternate date because it falls in the study week between classes and exams.

Coulter herself is fanning the flames, vowing on Fox News last week to come to campus on Thursday no matter what. “What are they going to do? Arrest me?” she told Tucker Carson. And to Hannity: “You cannot impose arbitrary and harassing restrictions on the exercise of a constitutional right. None of this has to do with security.”

Controversy was always due to follow Coulter to campus: the Trump-supporting author is known for her extreme political diatribes, including calling Islam a cult and seemingly defending Nazis. But the real aim of the Berkeley College Republicans’ lawsuit—which is unlikely to be won—perhaps isn’t to defend her appearance on campus so as much as to draw heaps more publicity to the roiling national debate over free speech and political censorship. And to that end, it’s already succeeded.