In the Era of 'Punch a Nazi,' U.S. Universities Struggle With Hosting Far-right Speakers

Ann Coulter's looming and unauthorized appearance at UC Berkeley is bringing the issue to a boil

A leaflet protesting the arrival of Ann Coulter is seen stapled to a message board at the University of California, Berkeley, April 21, 2017.
Ben Margot/AP

NEW YORK – The University of California at Berkeley has canceled Ann Coulter’s scheduled appearance, citing “reliable intel” about plans for endangering the speaker and possible violence on campus, a decision taken on Wednesday that was criticized by conservatives and liberals alike as an affront to freedom of speech and Berkeley’s legacy. Yet as tensions between the heroes of the far right and the left-liberals protesting U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies on the streets have escalated, Berkeley’s statement that they fear for the speaker’s safety and find themselves in uncharted waters has some merit.

In the age of “Punch a Nazi,” universities struggle with the challenge of hosting lecturers who have walked the line between free speech and hate speech. The battle cry for violence, along with the popular hashtag “punch a Nazi,” originated with a masked protester punching white nationalist Richard Spencer on Inauguration Day, and has been resonating with left-wing activists, who now see provocative statements from extreme rightist ideologues as policy proposals for the Trump administration that could endanger women, immigrants and minorities.

Only last month, a campus appearance by a controversial conservative author resulted in a physical altercation. Despite student demands, the liberal Vermont college Middlebury chose not to cancel the lecture of Charles Murray, whose most famous book, “The Bell Curve,” claimed that different ethnic groups have different overall levels of intelligence, and led to his being widely labeled as a racist. After the lecture, protesters attacked Murray and another professor, Allison Stranger, pulling her hair and injuring her neck.  

Spencer himself, who was triumphant after Trump’s victory, and spoke without interruption at Texas A&M University in December, has found it increasingly difficult to appear in public. He has been attacked twice, on Inauguration Day and during a protest against the U.S. attack on Syria. Comedian Sarah Silverman, who spoke out against the first attack on Spencer, has retreated after a twitterstorm of criticism from activists who claimed that as a white feminist she had no standing to criticize an attack on a person who advocates for an American white ethnocracy. She accepted the criticism and apologized.

Coulter seemed to assert that she is different from the more marginal far right figures, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, and to imply that Berkeley has a greater obligation to accommodate her lecture. “I love Milo,” she said in an interview on Fox News, “but I’m no Milo.”

Milo Yiannopoulos holds a press conference in New York on February 21, 2017.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP

Yet unlike Yiannopoulos, Coulter is seen as a muse for Trump, and is widely credited with influencing his immigration policy, as well as the slogans that launched his campaign. In her last bestseller, “Adios, America! The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole,” whose theme was also to be the subject of her Berkeley lecture, she insists repeatedly that rape is an inherent part of Latin American culture that will endanger American citizens, with memorable statements such as, “The rape of little girls isn’t even considered a crime in Latino culture.” As these claims became a part of the presidential campaign, she repeated them, writing in her column that for Mexican immigrants, “When it comes to child rape, the whole family gets involved. (They are family-oriented!).”  

So far, the administrators’ attempt to avoid mayhem on campus by cancelling appearances may prove unsuccessful, as the "alt-right" speakers refuse to back down and find a way to circumvent the administration. This month Spencer sued Auburn University in Texas for barring him from speaking on campus due to safety concerns, and vowed to show up on campus. Last week, a federal judge ruled that Auburn must allow Spencer to speak on campus. As reported by NPR, hundreds of people protested during Spencer’s appearance, and three were arrested.

Taking a page from Spencer, Berkeley’s conservative students have threatened to sue the university if Coulter is not allowed to speak on the original date – they offered an alternative, ostensibly safer date – while Coulter herself has promised to arrive to speak on campus on April 27, no matter what, thus de facto forcing the administration to accommodate her appearance. On Saturday, inspired by the controversy surrounding Coulter, Yiannopoulos has also announced that he plans to appear at UC Berkeley, with or without the university’s consent.