No fear of shrill conservatives

5/5/2017, 9:14 p.m.

Julianne Malveaux

The shrill conservative Ann Coulter has made headlines because the University of California, Berkeley, wouldn’t let her speak at the end of April. She was invited by college Republicans, but her appearance threatened to incite violence as activists on the left and on the right prepared to either protest or support her appearance. 

In the end, the university canceled her appearance, saying it could not guarantee her safety, which has the effect of providing the notorious loudmouth an enlarged platform. 

National news programs have featured Ms. Coulter yammering about the anti-immigration speech she might have given. And credible, national newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have both covered the issue on its news pages, but also printed opinion pieces about the disturbing trend of violent protests when conservative speakers — the Manhattan Institute’s Heather McDonald and “The Bell Curve” author and racist provocateur Charles A. Murray among them — are invited to campuses.

Who’s afraid of a shrill conservative? Liberals shouldn’t be. Sure, people like Ann Coulter deserve to be protested. But they also deserve to be heard.

Protests can take many forms. Students who oppose the Coulter blather can peacefully gather outside a venue where she is speaking with picket signs highlighting their points. They can peacefully attend her lecture and attempt to ask questions after her lecture. They can take to community forums — from radio and television to campus newspapers — to articulate their opposition to her views. They can stage counter events — how about a pro-immigration speaker scheduled at exactly the same time as the Coulter lecture — where opposition attendance is exponentially larger than hers. Or they can simply ignore her presence on campus.

Canceling Ms. Coulter’s appearance gives her more exposure than she deserves. It is also a form of censorship that cuts both ways. 

At Claremont McKenna College, police brutality defender Heather McDonald gave her talk via live stream because college administrators feared violence if there was a large audience. Protesters banged on the windows in the room where she gave her talk, making it difficult to hear her.  How would those of us who support the Black Lives Matter movement respond if BLM leaders were treated the same way Ms. McDonald was? And aren’t BLM supporters capable of responding to Ms. McDonald’s nonsense?

Universities are supposed to be places where minds are opened and ideas are exchanged. If provocative speakers can’t visit a university, who can? Where better to hear ideas, no matter how offensive, than at a university lecture or forum? 

I’d not like to have Ms. McDonald or Ms. Coulter as a commencement speaker. In a celebratory space, it would be positively offensive to have students of color be forced to share their big day with those who would implicitly deny their very right to exist. 

But I see no harm in having them speak on campus. Indeed, it is perhaps most effective to have them debate someone who disagrees with them. 

On one occasion, I was initially contracted to debate the anti-affirmative action activist Ward Connerly. He slithered out of the debate and even refused to appear on a panel with me. No matter. I used his printed words as a basis for refuting his flawed arguments against affirmative action. 

I share this instance not to toot my own horn, but to suggest that when conservatives are intellectually confronted by principled opposition, they often fold. On the other hand, when they don’t even get a chance to talk, they get to play victim to a larger audience.

Odious conservatives like these should be protested in an orderly way, debated and debunked. There is no way they should be prevented from speaking. When they talk, it becomes quite clear that they are wrong, misguided and narrow-minded. But when they are silenced, their ideas take on an importance that they hardly deserve.

The writer, a former president of Bennett College, is an economist and founder of Economic Education.