“It is a dark day for free speech in America,” absurdist right wing commentator Ann Coulter told her 1.49 million Twitter followers last week after her speech to a conservative student organization at the University of California, Berkeley, was canceled. Later that night, she went on Sean Hannity’s primetime political talk show to explain — in front of some 3.1 million viewers — how she had been silenced.
Coulter, who regularly appears on Fox News, has authored twelve bestselling books and once cameoed in “Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!”, is the latest victim of what many believe is an assault against free speech on college campuses. And in fairness, there have been some troubling incidents. In May 2014, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a commencement speech at Rutgers University after student protests.
And in October 2014, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian called off a speech at Utah State University after school staffers received an email threatening “the deadliest school shooting in American history” — evidence that the right is just as capable as the left of using violent threats to silence opponents.
But by many other measures, we’re actually living in a golden age of free speech. I don’t just mean the internet: The auspices of this era go well beyond Twitter or Facebook or Reddit. It’s been less than a century since Gitlow v. New York, a Supreme Court decision that greatly expanded the scope of free speech protections in the United States by applying them to state governments as well as the federal government. The remainder of the 20th century saw that scope expanded again and again, and today it is wider than ever: In the modern view, even money counts as speech.
Moreover, if public discourse is getting worse, it has little to do with a lack of free speech. Critics claim that Americans — particularly left-leaning and younger Americans — don’t want to hear alternative viewpoints. That may be true, but they certainly have access to those viewpoints. We’re lucky (relatively, anyway), to live in a country where the bubbles we live in are self-imposed, not forced upon us by censors.
There may have been a time when a canceled speech dealt a significant blow to political discourse. But today, like the Force in Star Wars, that discourse surrounds us — it is more mercurial, more protean and far more difficult to change or chip away at. Chances are, there’s nothing Ann Coulter would have said in her speech that isn’t readily available in her books, her TV appearances or her tweets.
In fact, before CNN produced Jeffrey Lord (presumably in a lab, using spores) and before Kellyanne Conway introduced us to the magical world of alternative facts, Ann Coulter was arguably the most well-known political commentator in America. She’s also prone to derailing conversations rather than elevating them, making her a poor poster child for the silencing of alternative viewpoints on college campuses.
Free speech is certainly an ideal worth defending, and not just from government interference. But if you believe that there’s a crisis of free speech in America, save your sympathies for someone more reputable and less prolific than Ann Coulter.
Groves is a government sophomore from Dallas. He is a Senior Columnist. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.