Richard Falk and Ann Coulter have had their speeches cancelled at major universities. The freedom to speak our minds is one of the cornerstones of liberal democracies. But that freedom has its limits. We know we cannot shout fire in a crowded movie theatre. We know we cannot incite people to violence. We know we cannot purposely tell lies about someone or print racist invectives. What we can and cannot say has been circumscribed by the law.
But what about our right to be heard? Two recent events have called this right into question. They come from both ends of the political spectrum and go beyond the often invoked issue of public safety. They both occurred at universities where freedom of speech and the right to be heard are central to intellectual inquiry.
Richard Falk, former UN Special Rapporteur for Palestine (2008-2014) and Albert G. Millbank Emeritus Professor of International Law and Practice at Princeton University, was invited to speak in the United Kingdom to present his latest book, Palestine’s Horizon. Although Falk has repeatedly been criticized by fervent supporters of Israel, including his recent co-authored report for the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) which said that Israel has established an apartheid regime, he is a respected academic and international lawyer.
The press reported that “Professor Falk was faced with protests and ‘disruptions’ during an event hosted by the London School of Economics (LSE).” Middlesex University London and the University of East London later cancelled Falk’s lectures citing security concerns.
In a British newspaper, Falk was quoted a saying: “As far as I can tell, there is a growing kind of feeling that the educational establishment in Britain, specifically in England, has been kind of intimidated in dealing with those who are seen as critics of Israel.” He added: “the cancellations of the university events showed the ‘intensification’ of a trend limiting academic freedom on university campuses and that by preventing students from being exposed to controversial issues, it would limit their training in becoming engaged citizens.”
At the other end of the political spectrum, right-wing commentator Ann Coulter’s speech was cancelled at the University of California, Berkeley, a campus with a long tradition of free speech and political activity. Once again security concerns were used by the university as the excuse for the cancellation. It was obvious that the security concerns grew out of recent events on campus that had turned violent. As reported in the press: “School officials said the Berkeley College Republicans and Young America's Foundation, who had planned to host Coulter, didn't follow procedure. Citing violence during recent speaking events and protests, the school also said it was concerned about security.” 21 people were arrested some time before the Coulter incident when opposing groups clashed in a city park over President Trump's policies. In February, an appearance by another right-wing speaker was cancelled amid near-riots.
LSE and Berkeley have long histories of political involvement. The London School of Economics was founded by Sidney and Beatrice Webb of the Fabian Society to advance socialist causes by reform instead of revolution to better society, focusing on research on issues of poverty, inequality and related issues. It was closely associated with the Labour Party. There is no history of violence on campus. The University of California, Berkeley was famous as the center of the free speech movement during the 1964–65 academic year. Students insisted that the university administration lift the ban of on-campus political activities and acknowledge the students' right to free speech and academic freedom. The Free Speech Movement was important for the civil liberties movement in the 1960s.
Violence and cancellations are not part of the two institutional histories. They are, however, part of the radicalization of the politics today and a decline in freedom. Instead of shouting or cancelling, there are other alternatives. An example might be the graduation ceremony at Amherst College at the height of the Vietnam War in 1966. Robert McNamara was being honored. Students wore armbands, some students walked out, some students turned their backs when the Secretary of Defense received his honorary degree. But there was no violence. There were no riots protesting the award. There was no cancellation.
The reactions at LSE and other London universities and Berkeley to Richard Falk and Ann Coulter show passion. They reflect strong beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. What they don’t reflect is the ability to respect another’s opinion. That lack of respect is part of a decline in liberal democracies. And it is also potentially damaging to the very freedoms those shouting or cancelling claim to uphold.