Ann Coulter, a controversial right-wing author and commentator, was tentatively scheduled to speak at University of California-Berkeley on 27 April until pre-speech protests turned into violent clashes, and her speech was canceled. In response, Coulter tweeted, “It’s sickening when a radical thuggish institution like Berkeley can so easily snuff out the cherished American right to free speech.”
Not long ago left-wing institutions such as Berkeley, the home of the Free Speech Movement in the mid-sixties, were seen as bastions of free expression. At about the same time as Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, North Carolina conservatives passed the Speaker Ban Law to prohibit Communists and other questionable figures from speaking on state campuses. Jesse Helms evoked the Speaker Ban Law in 1968 when he charged that Stokely Carmichael ought not have been permitted to speak, citing “almost unanimous resentment among citizens of this state that Carmichael was given the respectability of a forum at the taxpayers’ expense — on the campuses of the University of North Carolina.”
The debate continues over allowing purportedly offensive speakers on campus. Gail Collins, an op-ed columnist at the New York Times, noted her longtime support for free speech on college campuses. As an undergraduate student at Marquette University in 1967 she protested in the dean’s office, demanding that Allen Ginsberg be allowed to read his poems on the conservative Catholic campus. Ginsberg, who had unleashed his blistering poem “Howl” as an attack on the status quo in a renowned reading in 1955 in San Francisco, was not permitted to speak at Marquette despite Collins’ efforts.
Politically, Ann Coulter and Allen Ginsberg reside in opposing universes. She is a conservative who was raised by an FBI agent father and admires Joseph McCarthy; he was raised by Jewish parents with communist sympathies and celebrated marijuana, homosexuality, and Buddhism. Theirs are not names we might expect to find yoked in a common cause, yet they have in their own ways pushed themselves to the leading edges of freedom of speech issues.
Jesse Helms promoted FCC regulations that prevented Ginsberg, who was born on 3 June 1926, and died in 1997, from reading “Howl” — or even allowing stations to broadcast a recording of “Howl” — on the airwaves between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. That ban remains in effect to this day. Although “Howl” presents a litany of social condemnations, the FCC’s objection technically would come down to a handful of sexual references, among them “cock and endless balls,” “who blew and were blown,” and so on. The fiercest transgression exploded in a phrase that was undoubtedly more shocking in the 1950s than it is now: “fucked in the ass.” When Ginsberg wrote those words into an early draft, he reckoned their presence would prevent the poem’s publication. He did assume, though, that he would be able to recite the poem. Ginsberg went on to specialize in live readings and performance; he complained in a 1994 interview that due the FCC broadcast restrictions, he was effectively “banned from the marketplace of ideas in my own country.”
The print publication of “Howl” maintains legendary status in the history of free speech. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, co-owner of City Lights Books, published “Howl,” along with other Ginsberg poems, in 1956. After the first printing of Howl and Other Poems sold out quickly, Ferlinghetti negotiated a second printing via an inexpensive London printer. On 25 March 1957, U.S. Customs officers in San Francisco seized the shipment en route from the London printer, citing Section 305 of the Tariff Act of 1930, which bars “any obscene book” from importation. Ironically, the most shocking phrase did not appear in the printed book. The offensive words were replaced by asterisks: ****** in the ***. Although Customs released the book, city police officers arrested Ferlinghetti and his store clerk on 3 June 1957, for selling “obscenity.” Ferlinghetti maintained that Ginsberg’s ideas, more than his language, were responsible for the arrest.
The ensuing trial garnered coast-to-coast publicity. San Francisco Municipal Judge Clayton W. Horn admitted that although some members of society could deem certain words in “Howl” course and vulgar, for others these were simply everyday phrases. Since Horn was convinced of the poem’s social importance, he supported the notion that the First Amendment protected the expression of Ginsberg’s ideas, however unorthodox, controversial, and disturbing they might be. Ferlinghetti was free to sell the book, and Ginsberg, though reviled by many, emerged as a voice for freedom of expression and individuality.
For Ginsberg, the key to his poetry is neither the graphic language nor thematic matter per se, but simply straightforward honesty, a trait inspired by his reading of Walt Whitman. Speaking to a Playboy interviewer in 1969, Ginsberg complained, “[My] poems get misinterpreted as promotion of homosexuality. Actually, it’s more like promotion of frankness. . . . When a few people get frank about homosexuality in public, it breaks the ice; then anybody can be frank about anything. That’s socially useful.”
After the cancellation of Coulter’s Berkeley appearance, university professor and commentator Robert Reich shared a discussion with Coulter on ABC’s This Week. Reich stated that “if somebody says something that is offensive, well, that is not per se a violation of any kind of university norm.” Reich maintains that university students learn by talking with people whose views test their views. Ideally, he concluded, universities should host people with “views that some people find to be offensive.”
To many readers, evocation of outrage is the sole purpose of Coulter’s output; rather than promoting honesty via poetry, as Ginsberg aims to do, she provokes indignation in her guise as media-provocateur. Coulter may well owe her celebrity status to her outrageous statements, but even dissenters ought to concede that, like Ginsberg, she should be free to speak her mind. A particular venue is within its rights, though, to refuse to host her appearance. When Marquette refused to allow Ginsberg to appear on campus in 1967, he read his poems instead at nearby University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, drawing an audience of thousands.
Featured Image credit: Ann Coulter speaking at the 2012 CPAC in Washington, D.C. Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.