No, UC Berkeley did not step on Yiannopoulos’ right to free speech
February 8, 2017
Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.
Email This Story
Freedom of speech, the cornerstone of the U.S. constitution, protects the right of people to express their opinions publicly and without governmental interference.
Not all speech is free, however. A person cannot yell “fire!” in a crowded theater, nor can they attempt to incite violence or rebellion.
Breitbart editor and real-world troll Milo Yiannopoulos is no exception. The right-wing extremist, a political bomb thrower, is currently on a tour of American universities. He speaks out against what he calls “political correctness,” but what he is really against is equality. He is anti-trans, anti-feminist and anti-Muslim.
Yiannopoulos first gained the attention and admiration of the internet hate machine during the sexist witch-hunts known as “GamerGate,” an invented controversy and harassment campaign launched by video game enthusiasts against female game developers. GamerGate harassers, predominantly anonymous internet trolls, attacked women on social media for months.
In the summer of 2016, Yiannopoulos led his more than 300,000 Twitter followers in another harassment campaign, this time against actress Leslie Jones. Jones’ only sin was appearing in an all-female Ghostbusters remake, something a subset of fragile men on the internet could not handle. This led to Yiannopoulos being banned from Twitter — a noteworthy feat given that the platform has been routinely criticized for being a haven of neo-Nazis, trolls and merciless, unpunished harassment.
Yiannopoulos’ college tour has generated gobs of attention for the malignant narcissist, but more for the reaction of students than the content of his speeches.
The Seattle Times reported that Yiannopoulos fans chanted “white power” while protesters chanted “Nazi scum” at a University of Washington speech in late January. One protester shot another, in what he claimed was self-defense. The man who was shot was there to see Yiannopoulos.
Yiannopoulos next had a speech canceled at the UC Davis. The university said the College Republicans, who had invited Yiannopoulos, canceled the event, although Yiannopoulos himself blamed administrators. He also claimed there was extensive damage done by protesters — a claim rebuked by UC Davis police shortly thereafter on Twitter.
At UC Berkeley, a week later, Yiannopoulos got his riot. Unnamed individuals in black masks and black clothing broke windows and threw firecrackers at police, resulting in the cancellation of his speech.
The episode served no purpose other than to confirm the dishonest right-wing narrative that the left shuts down free speech, an ironic charge from people who consistently whine and moan about anti-Trump protests at college campuses nationwide.
Protests are also protected under the first amendment. The students in Washington, Davis and Berkeley all had the right to stand up and demonstrate against a figure who preaches nothing but hate.
However, the visuals of black-masked agent provocateurs destroying property fit into the Yiannopolous’ narrative and only distracted from the real issue — that his intellectually bankrupt ideology is hollow, hateful and dangerous.
Pundits and publications have long complained about the loss of free speech on campuses in reaction to controversial speakers. President Trump threatened UC Berkeley’s university’s federal funding, which includes federal financial aid. But one aspect missed by the media pearl-clutching and hand-wringing was one fact — the university did not impede on Yiannopoulos’ rights.
His speech was canceled not because of his words or ideas, but because of the safety concerns stemming from the actions of a small group of violent demonstrators.
While the university is under no obligation to provide Yiannopoulos a microphone or a stage, it is obligated to act in the interest of student and staff safety.
One thing that is great about the free speech enjoyed in the U.S. is that it is a right both sides of a controversial issue can exercise. But freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom from the consequences of that speech. A university or organization has the right to cancel a speaker as a result of something they said. Still, that is not what happened at Berkeley.
Perhaps the question that should be asked is why the College Republicans on these campuses openly embrace someone so unapologetically sexist, racist and Islamophobic? After all, it was each university’s College Republican organizations that invited Yiannopoulos. How much credibility is there in the claim their party is “inclusive” when its campus representatives revel in bringing in hateful, divisive speakers? Either the College Republicans endorse Yiannopoulos’s hate speech, or they are purposefully trying to provoke their classmates.
The modern alt-right white nationalist movement was born online and nurtured by trolls. As these trolls have pushed their ideology into the offline world, they are encountering more and more resistance. It is one thing to cower in anonymous internet forums and social media platforms that function as insulating and reassuring bubbles, but it is another thing to bring ideas most of society rejected in the middle of the 20th century into the daylight.
The U.S. fought and won a war against fascism. The ideas of alt-right white nationalist figures like Richard Spencer and Yiannopolous have been heard, fleshed out and hardily rebuked — at great loss of life, no less.
It is in this context the issue of free speech and hate speech must be measured.
Although, in this instance, it was not the content of Yiannopolous’ speech nor the speech of his opponents that led to the cancellation, the creeping threat and mainstreaming of fascist ideology continues in the margins of this debate. And as was seen at Berkeley and other increasingly contentious confrontations across the country, as the volume of hate speech is amplified, so is the reaction to it.