Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein defended the University of California, Berkeley at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, and suggested colleges shouldn’t have to accommodate controversial speakers.
The hearing was sparked by countless free speech violations on college campuses across the country, where conservative speakers are often shouted down by leftist protesters, physically assaulted or in some instances prevented from speaking at all.
One example occurred in April when administrators at Berkeley failed to accommodate a planned speech by conservative writer Ann Coulter. At Tuesday’s hearing, Feinstein defended Berkeley’s decision and its president Janet Napolitano.
“The president [Napolitano] of that university is known to all of us. She was a governor; she headed a 250,000-staff Homeland Security Department here. She is tough, she is strong, she is fair, she is able,” Feinstein said.
In a heated back-and-forth with one of the panelists at the hearing, UCLA law professor and First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh, Feinstein declared, “One of the problems that I have is that there is an expectation that the university handles it,” referring to universities accommodating contentious speakers.
“The handling of it, means that you have resources to be able to send and those resources know what to do. And particularly for the public university, and particularly for the University of California, there is a constant battle with the legislature over money. So the resources are not always what they might be,” she added.
Volokh hit back, “I would think that Berkeley police department would also be able and should be willing to lend police officers to help out.”
“If we are in a position where our police departments are unable to protect free speech, whether it’s universities or otherwise, then yes, indeed, we are in a very bad position,” he added.
In an ensuing exchange with another panelist, visiting Yale law professor Frederick Lawrence, Feinstein continued to question universities protecting controversial speakers.
“No matter how radical, offensive, biased, prejudiced, fascist the program is, you should find a way to accommodate it?” she asked.
Lawrence responded: “I would say in response to that … if we are talking about the substance of the program—not the danger and credible threats, but the substance of the program—then yes.”
The hearing included a panel of students and experts in addition to seven witnesses who spoke to lawmakers. Among the witnesses were two legal scholars, two students, a campus administrator, a former college president, and Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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