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A recent article in CU Independent commented on the importance of “hearing out” conservative journalist and lawyer Ann Coulter, scheduled to speak at CU Boulder March 21st. According to the article, Ashley Mayer, CU Boulder chapter president of Turning Point USA, the conservative organization that invited Coulter, remarked that “Turning Point USA believes the sole definition of free speech lies in the First Amendment” and that Coulter is a “‘successful conservative who embodies and defends the First Amendment.’”
The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Astute readers will note that the First Amendment has absolutely nothing to do with popular social notions of free speech, such as those allegedly embodied by Coulter, but refers solely to legislative powers delegated to Congress. It is common practice in the United States to interpret the constitution and the Bill of Rights rather than read it literally; however, strictly speaking, the constitution only guarantees that Congress “shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” So appealing to the First Amendment as “the sole definition” of free speech in order to respond to anything other than Congressional interference is misguided.
Turning Point has an interesting position regarding so-called “safe spaces.” President Mayer is quoted in the article as saying, “Safe spaces foster a false idea that when someone is offended, they can run to a place where all becomes good in the world.” Back in 2016/2017 I was involved in organizing the protest effort against Milo Yiannopoulos. During that time, I met with several members of Turning Point, including their president of the time. Among other things, we discussed how CU Boulder is regarded as a pretty liberal campus, and how coming from a conservative background to such a liberal school can be challenging. I am receptive to those feelings. However, while polemicizing against safe spaces, Turning Point is itself a safe space for young conservatives who feel isolated or alienated at college campuses. It’s fine for conservatives to have such spaces; what is problematic is launching volleys and broadsides against the very sort of institution which they exemplify. If the members of Turning Point wish to do away with safe spaces, the first thing they ought to do is disband their own organization (or at least, their chapter).
The article also exemplifies what I think is a common, false assumption, namely, that those who refuse to engage with or who protest figures like Coulter aren’t interested in discussion or the rational exchange of ideas. On the contrary, Ann Coulter has been around for some time, and some of us have been around long enough to know what she is going to say and what she is about. This refrain of “hear her out” assumes that those of us opposed haven’t already heard her out. We know better than to think that what she says is reasonable. This same dialogue was had during the Milo saga, and I am sure it will play out again.
The empty rhetorical appeal to the First Amendment combined with the hypocrisy regarding “safe spaces,” and the consistent insistence on inviting trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter and pseudoscientists like Charles Murray, contributes to the common image of the politically obtuse and emotionally callous conservative. And in light of that image, it is difficult to take seriously members of Turning Point who say things like, “Safe spaces foster a false idea that when someone is offended, they can run to a place where all becomes good in the world.” Don’t these young conservatives routinely demonstrate that such an idea is, for better or worse, not false? If Turning Point USA is really dedicated to promoting conservative causes, a good start would be to counter-exemplify those stereotypes.
Charles Wofford is a PhD student and activist at CU Boulder studying historical musicology. He can be reached at Charles.Wofford@colorado.edu.