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“Free Speech” Hypocrisy at Berkeley

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A free-speech controversy at Berkeley University provides us with an opportunity to explore differences between statism and libertarianism. The controversy revolves around right-wing commentator Ann Coulter, who has been invited to speak at Berkeley by a campus chapter of the old conservative student group Young Americans for Freedom.

Berkeley, as most people know, has long been a bastion of liberalism/progressivism/leftism. The campus has always prided itself on its purported commitment to “free speech,” claiming that in the spirit of intellectual exploration it protects the publication of unpopular perspectives. In fact, in the “About” section of its website, the university proudly proclaims:

From a group of academic pioneers in 1868 to the Free Speech Movement in 1964, Berkeley is a place where the brightest minds from across the globe come together to explore, ask questions and improve the world.

The university’s purported commitment to “free speech,” however, apparently doesn’t extend to ideas that are unpopular within the Berkeley administration, specifically right-wing, conservative perspectives, such as those held by Coulter. The university is prohibiting her from sharing her views on campus.

How does the university reconcile its action with its purported devotion to “free speech”? It says that there is a danger that student protests against Coulter could turn violent. Therefore, to ensure everyone’s safety, better to simply prohibit the talk.

Wow! It seems to me that that would be an excellent rational that every totalitarian dictatorship in history could use to suppress ideas and perspectives it doesn’t want being disseminated. Indeed, all that a regime would have to do is itself instigate, encourage, or passively permit the violent protests and then use the violence to suppress the speech.

Let’s begin with basic libertarian principles. In a libertarian society, all educational institutions are privately owned. There is no government involvement whatsoever, including government subsidies. Everything is funded voluntarily, including through fees or private donations.

And isn’t that the way things should be? The state isn’t involved in religion. Why should it be involved in education? The problem, of course, is that since we have all been born and raised under a socialist educational system, it is difficult for some people to think “outside the box” and imagine life based on a free-market, private-property educational system.

When a university is privately owned, it has the right to establish whatever rules it wants as to how the university is managed. Thus, if it says: No leftist/progressive/left-wing/liberal ideas will be permitted to be disseminated on campus, it is operating within its rights. The same principle applies if it bans the dissemination of conservative/right-wing perspectives.

In such a case, no one’s rights are being violated. No one is being “censored.” It’s what a private-property system is all about — the right of the owner of a business to manage it the way he wants.

By the same token, students are free to go elsewhere. They don’t have to attend that university. If they choose to do so, they agree to comply with the university’s policies.

These private-property principles, however, don’t apply to the Berkeley/Coulter controversy. That’s because Berkeley is not a private institution. It is instead a government institution, i.e., a socialist one. That makes it subject to the Bill of Rights, which, under the First Amendment, prohibits federal and state institutions from depriving people of their free-speech rights.

In the case of publicly owned universities, it becomes difficult to determine whose rights are being violated. On the one hand, the university takes the position that it has the right to operate its campus the way it wants, just like a private university. On the other hand, however, are the rights of the students under the First Amendment. How can one rationally reconcile these principles?

One thing is certain in the Berkeley-Coulter controversy: the manifest hypocrisy of the Berkeley administration. If the proposed speaker was Hillary Clinton, there is virtually no possibility that the university would prohibit her from speaking owing to the dangers posed by some violent right-wing protestors. In that case, the university would undoubtedly summon the government and request it to arrest, prosecute, and punish the violent people, not the speaker.

So, why take a different position with someone like Ann Coulter? The answer is both obvious and obviously hypocritical.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.