Posted in: Campus

Free Speech Means Free Speech

By | February 16, 2017

Yiannopoulos is a troll. To defeat him, we must fight him.


Following the peaceful-turned-violent protests against Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California, Berkeley, the Editorial Board of The Harvard Crimson published an article titled “Free Speech, Not Hate Speech,” urging universities to refrain from granting “figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos a platform to espouse their hateful and unsubstantiated claims.”

The editorial has two main arguments. Neither is sound.

First, it argues that Milo Yiannopoulos is simply a polemic who espouses racist, sexist, hateful, and evidence-free views. Since universities are places of serious evidence-based research, Yiannopoulos contributes nothing and arguably detracts from this mission. It follows that universities must not grant him a platform for his hateful and false claims.

This argument rests on a false premise. Milo Yiannopoulos is not invited to host research seminars on gender studies nor to present papers on why feminism is comparable to cancer. He is not invited in virtue of his impressive CV, factual accuracy, rational arguments, or intellectual competence—he has none of that. He is invited because, like it or not, he is a prominent voice in American right-wing populism and counterculture. His value is in informing us that views as abhorrent and wrong as his are popular beyond the ivory tower. His presence contributes to our intellectual endeavors and the university’s social mission, not because he has a shred of truth, but because if we ever hope to eradicate his views for good, we’d better know why people believe them in the first place.

But this is even assuming campus speakers need to directly contribute to a university’s mission to be allowed to speak. Such an assumption is defensible if the university officially invited Yiannopoulos, which is not the case. In the Berkeley incident, it was the Berkeley College Republicans, a student group, which invited Yiannopoulos. The university has a well-established responsibility to support all student organizations that are consistent with its institutional values. In this case, Berkeley simply fulfilled that responsibility by providing the College Republicans with a venue for their speaker, in accordance with regular protocol. There is no reason—regarding a university’s mission—to disinvite Yiannopoulos, unless one wishes to declare that the College Republicans are no longer an organization consistent with the university’s institutional values.

Second, the editorial argues that the presence of Yiannopoulos poses a tangible threat to the security and well-being of some members of the university community, citing an incident at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, where Yiannopoulos singled out and verbally harassed a student. Since the university has a responsibility for the security and well-being of its members—the argument goes—Yiannopoulos must not be allowed to speak.

A broad interpretation of this argument is that any provocative claims against a certain identity—anti-black, anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, etc.—pose a tangible threat to students and prescribes a limit for free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, does affirm a “fighting words” criterion—words that would “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are indeed not protected under the First Amendment. Racist, sexist, and hateful speech that is broadly directed does not count as “fighting words” and is protected as free speech, as hate-speech cases in the last fifty years have established.

It is easy to dismiss a Supreme Court ruling as a technicality and something that applies at best to public institutions. That’s far from the case. These precedents prescribe what free speech even means. Free speech doesn’t mean protection only for speech or people we agree with. Free speech doesn’t even mean protection only for those that are decent human beings. Free speech means free speech. It means protection for all. It means that there is no exemption for hateful rhetoric that does not pose immediate threat to individuals. This is not a view held solely by libertarian fanatics, conservative pundits, or the white-male oppressors. This is a view held steadfastly by the ACLU, who are, as it became clear a few weeks ago, the very guardians of this democracy.

A narrower interpretation of the Crimson’s second argument is that, in the specific case of Yiannopoulos, since his actions at the University of Wisconsin do appear to constitute verbal harassment and abuse, there is a legitimate chance that he would direct his hate at specific people, crossing the red line between protected hate speech and punishable verbal abuse. This does establish the holy grail of the Crimson’s argument—that Yiannopoulos’ harassment ought not to be protected. Yet this is also a weaker claim, saying nothing about other controversial speakers like Steve Bannon or Martin Shkreli.

However, a further issue is whether the university, when providing a venue for an invited speaker, is the party morally and legally responsible for the conduct of the speaker. The answer ought to be no. According to an ACLU attorney quoted by VICE, while universities do have a responsibility to ensure a safe environment for all students, the responsibility is not a prerogative or obligation to “police the speech of every adult who visits campus.” When Yiannopoulos uses a speech to attack and harass a member of the audience, he ought to be the sole person morally and legally liable. Pinning the blame on university administrations “would be a death knell for controversial speech on campus,” argues the ACLU.

But not only is the Crimson’s argument based on a myopic view of the moral responsibilities of universities and the civil liberties protected by the law of the land, it also suggests an ineffective strategy for liberals to win the culture wars of today. Denying speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos does not deny them a platform. Rather, it augments their platform and amplifies their voice, by showing that the American educated elite and liberal academia—which are so often the punching bags of populist demagogues—are afraid of their ideas. The right approach is not to cower behind our ivory towers and make up excuses for restricting speech, ceding the moral high ground of free speech to trolls like Yiannopoulos. Instead, we ought to own the fact that free speech means free speech, just like the brave men and women of Berkeley did in 1964. We ought to repudiate Yiannopoulos and his ilk, not only with accusations of racism, sexism, and hate, but also with a vigorous defense of civil society, liberal democracy, and gender and racial equality. We ought to fight speech with speech, fight hate with discourse, and fight bigotry with debate.


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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