Law & the Courts

At Berkeley, the Mob Wins Again

Ann Coulter at CPAC 2014 (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
By allowing cowardly threats of violence to cancel Ann Coulter’s speech, school administrators and the police once again failed in their sacred duty to protect Americans’ constitutional rights.

Early this afternoon, Ann Coulter canceled her planned Thursday speech at the University of California, Berkeley. There can now be no doubt: A violent Left-wing mob dictates the rules at one of the nation’s (and the world’s) most prominent academic institutions.

Let’s be crystal clear about the government’s obligation here: It is to protect liberty. That’s why government exists in our constitutional republic, to guarantee the exercise of our unalienable rights, especially when it is threatened. Berkeley instead has chosen to systematically strip those rights from its students and hand ultimate power to the mob, justifying its cowardice through a disingenuous appeal to public safety.

The deprivation of individual rights is comprehensive, ominous, and intolerable.

First, Berkeley strips students of their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms so it can maintain and enforcing an allegedly gun-free campus. As a result, students are forced to depend entirely on campus and city police to secure their safety and liberty.

Second, campus law enforcement has shamefully abdicated its role. According to a lawsuit filed against the university by the Young America’s Foundation and the Berkeley College Republicans, the campus police operate under what is essentially a “stand down” order, intervening only if they believe human life is in immediate danger. The mayor of Berkeley himself has justified lackluster police responses by claiming that if police had been more aggressive then “more people could’ve gotten hurt.” Let’s be clear about what this means: The police are failing to protect liberty in part out of a desire to protect the rioters from physical harm. That’s why entire city streets have seemed to be empty of police presence. That’s why rioters have been able to beat innocent citizens with impunity. That’s why so few arrests have been made.

Third, this means that students and speakers face a terrible choice. Say the words the mob lets you say, when the mob lets you say them, or face the violence America has seen splashed on screens across the country. Men and women are being beaten with bats and bike locks. They’re being tear-gassed. They’re getting gang-tackled and stomped until they’re covered in their own blood. At a protest in Washington state, someone was actually shot. Given the level of violence thus far, it’s a miracle that no one has died; if things continue like this, someone surely will.

Justifying his institution’s cowardice, Berkeley’s chancellor put out a statement discussing at length the university’s commitment to free speech and to student safety. But against the backdrop of law enforcement’s unwillingness to enforce the law, it’s clear that he — like the police — is trying to protect the mob. His obligation is to protect liberty, not to guarantee the safety of those who violently and lawlessly suppress individual freedom. He is knowingly granting the mob a heckler’s veto.

I’ve seen the mob back down. All it takes is will. All it takes is courage. The government is not here to make rioters feel safe.

The gun on a police officer’s hip exists to protect himself and others, yes, but it also exists to guarantee liberty. Constitutionally literate leaders understand this truth. Constitutionally literate citizens understand it as well. The guns on our own hips represent our commitment to freedom, and this much I know: If law enforcement fails to defend our nation’s founding liberties, then, ultimately, an armed citizenry will. The choice is that stark. The stakes are that great.

Berkeley likes to say that it isn’t censoring anyone, that it’s merely imposing reasonable “time, place, and manner” restrictions on speech in an attempt to balance fundamental liberties with the safety of the campus community. But in reality, the university is in full retreat, with the mob forcing the speech it doesn’t like into smaller venues, at times when far fewer people can hear it. Like a whipped cur, U.C. Berkeley is being backed into its crate, its tale between its legs, yelping about safety every trembling step of the way.

Colleges can do better. I’ve seen them do better. I’ve seen determined officers protect the most controversial speakers. I’ve seen the mob back down. All it takes is will. All it takes is courage. The government is not here to make rioters feel safe. Its first responsibility isn’t to make sure that only a “few” people get beaten and gassed for the crime of holding a charged political point of view. It’s here to secure and defend liberty.

Berkeley is failing at that basic, fundamental task. Other universities teeter on the brink of the same failure. It’s time for political leaders to remember their first duty. The alternative isn’t systematic censorship, but civil conflict. Restore the rule of law now, or our nation will find itself in a dark place indeed.

— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.

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David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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