On Milo’s Right to Speak


Yesterday a minor moronic bigot by the name of Milo Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking at the University of California at Berkeley campus by protesters, some of whom set fires, smashed windows, and attempted to assault police officers.  Yiannopoulos has gained undeserved notoriety through his vile assaults on liberals, minorities, women, gays, and transgender people, initially via the Breitbart News website and Twitter — both [the latter] of which eventually removed him — and now in a self-described “dangerous faggot” lecture tour of college and university campuses.  In his talks he sometimes singles out individuals for cruel mockery and harassment.

I have until now been reluctant to address the controversy swirling around Milo, mostly because I think he’s a cheap provocateur and the kind of response he got in Berkeley is precisely what he wants to provoke.  But now I will say it as clearly as I can: repulsive as his ideas and actions are, Yiannopoulos has the right to speak publicly, including on college campuses.  Under the First Amendment public colleges and universities are clearly legally bound not to bar him nor to create viewpoint-based obstacles (like inordinately high “security fees”) to his appearances.  Under the broader principles of free expression, all institutions, public or private, and all members of the higher education community should refrain from efforts to block his appearances.  As the AAUP affirmed in our 1994 statement On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes, “On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful or disturbing that it may not be expressed. . . .  An institution of higher learning fails to fulfill its mission if it asserts the power to proscribe ideas—and racial or ethnic slurs, sexist epithets, or homophobic insults almost always express ideas, however repugnant. Indeed, by proscribing any ideas, a university sets an example that profoundly disserves its academic mission.”

It is critically important, however, to emphasize that at Berkeley, while some student demonstrators claimed Milo’s views to be so hateful that his ideas should be proscribed — by the way, a viewpoint they also have a right to express — those who employed violence to prevent last night’s event were by all accounts not students.  Milo had the right to speak and his opponents had the right to protest, but the appearance was terminated by the actions of a relatively small group of idiots, calling themselves “anarchists.”  This organized group (yes, “anarchists” organize themselves), numbering last night at about 100-150, may include a few UC students, but most if not all have no connection whatsoever to the university.  They have been plaguing the progressive community in Oakland for some time now, turning almost every outpouring of legitimate protest — against police brutality, immigration raids, you name it — into an opportunity to smash windows (for some reason they seem to think that automobile showrooms are a major buttress of authoritarian state power) and provoke the police, driving almost everyone else who genuinely supports their purported cause of the day away.

This is important, because within hours of last night’s Berkeley events, none other than President Donald Trump sent out this tweet: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”  Trump, of course, is famous for speaking (or tweeting) first and investigating (if at all) later.  And of course the reality is that the university not only did not bar free speech it also did not “practice violence.”  A small and unrepresentative group of individuals with minimal if any connection to the university did.

If the stupid and counter-productive actions of the Berkeley “anarchists” pose a threat to free speech, Trump’s arrogant authoritarian response poses a potentially far greater one.  As Wisconsin professor Donald Moynihan has argued, the biggest threat to free speech on campus comes from the government, not students.  Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a Democrat who represents Berkeley, put it well in her statement:

Milo Yiannopoulos has made a career of inflaming racist, sexist and nativist sentiments. Berkeley has a proud history of dissent and students were fully within their rights to protest peacefully. However, I am disappointed by the unacceptable acts of violence last night which were counterproductive and dangerous.

President Donald Trump cannot bully our university into silence. Simply put, President Trump’s empty threat to cut funding from UC Berkeley is an abuse of power. As a senior member of the education funding subcommittee, I will continue to stand up to President Trump’s overreach and defend the rights of our students and faculty.

Perhaps the most frustrating element of the whole Milo affair is the extent to which even the most well-meaning efforts to deny his right to speak play right into his hands and, more important, into the hands of those like Trump who stand behind him.  For these efforts shift the conversation from the vile content of Milo’s rantings to his “freedom of speech.”  So Mike Wright of Berkeley College Republicans, the group that invited Yiannopoulos to the campus, can now say ““This is what tolerance looks like at UC Berkeley.”  And hours after the event was canceled, the College Republicans issued a statement declaring Berkeley’s famous 1964 Free Speech Movement (FSM) dead. “It is tragic that the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement is also its final resting place,” the statement said.

That is, of course, hogwash.  Indeed, in a powerful statement published prior to Milo’s appearance a group of FSM veterans wrote,

Berkeley’s free speech tradition, won through struggle — suspension, arrest, fines, jail time — by Free Speech Movement activists is far more important than Yiannopoulos, and it is that tradition’s endurance that concerns us. “The content of speech or advocacy should not be restricted by the university”: That’s what the pivotal Dec. 8 resolution says, as adopted by the Berkeley faculty’s Academic Senate when it finally backed the FSM’s free speech demand in 1964. Under the terms of that resolution, even the worst kind of bigot, including Yiannopoulos, must be allowed to speak on campus.

Equally ridiculous are claims by Yiannopoulos’s supporters that it is “the Left” that always initiates violence.  In fact, it was a Milo supporter who shot a protester recently outside a Milo speech in Texas.  And it is absurd to claim that Yiannopoulos, who has received far more publicity than he deserves and was given a $250,000 book advance by a prominent publisher, has been somehow silenced.  Indeed, canceling his talks only adds to his sick influence even as it shifts the conversation to the issue of free speech.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t protest his appearances, but I am saying that they should focus their fire on his noxious ideas and behavior and not on his right to speak.  “The whole reason we’re here is for free speech,” one Berkeley sophomore told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Milo’s hate speech is not allowed here. When it’s hate speech, our free speech is to shut him down.”  No, your free speech is to speak back — forcefully, loudly, clearly, and rationally.  And not only, perhaps even mainly, at Milo, who is after all little more than a cheap huckster and puppet.  What is most regrettable is that the College Republicans — and the clownish president who leads them — are now able to claim they are defenders of free speech rather than being compelled to defend what they are, enablers, if not advocates, of Yiannopoulos’s bigotry.  Anti-Milo demonstrators should let the moron speak and then hold his sponsors responsible for promoting their ideas.  Make them own the ideas, not the “right” to express them.

Of course, some may argue — as a group of Berkeley faculty did in the weeks preceding Milo’s appearance — that his speeches are not simply speeches, that they involve intimidation and harassment that if practiced by a faculty member or student on the campus could violate the anti-harassment provisions of Title VII and IX of the federal code. l have some sympathy with this argument, but I don’t think it holds water as a justification for prior restraint.  Why not, I would suggest, attend his speech and monitor his behavior.  If he singles out an individual for ridicule and abuse in a manner that could be deemed illegal harassment, then file a complaint, and not only against the speaker but against the campus group that sponsors him.

Finally, let me stress what I think should be obvious:  The controversy over Milo is a distraction from much, much bigger challenges.  Milo Yiannopoulos is a repulsive self-promoting creep of a bigoted con man.  But he doesn’t hold a candle to the far more dangerous con man in the White House.  To focus on Milo is to let Trump off the hook.  And that would truly imperil freedom of speech.




11 thoughts on “On Milo’s Right to Speak

    • Thank you for the correction. I recalled him being dismissed by Breitbart, but perhaps that was some other jackass pseudo-“journalist.” You’re right, however, if he ever left he’s certainly back.

  1. I agree and disagree with what you’ve said.

    First of all thank you for taking the time to explain that chaos. I saw the mess on social media yesterday and never got around to figuring out what happened and why.

    That said, as someone who works in the media, I’ve found my compromise with free speech. Free speech is definitely a right, but entities are not obligated to provide a platform for it.

    For instance, I delete most of the Neo-Nazi comments on my posts comparing Black people to monkeys in Africa. The idiots are free to post it, but it’s my blog and I can remove it along with spam, and other messages I don’t want attached to my brand.

    I’m sure universities think of it the same, as do the students who earn a lifetime of debt just to be there. They definitely should have found a better way to protest his appearance and speech, but I can’t blame them for getting desperate in this socio-political climate.

    They are young and young folks do rash and ridiculous things. At least this time it was with good intentions, though it’s a commonly told truth that the way to hell is paved with good intentions.

    • You are absolutely right that young people do rash and ridiculous things. I am far more likely to tolerate well-intentioned extremism in students than in adults who should know better. However, the university is not like your blog. Your blog is private and you have the right to decide the extent to which you will open it to views you find offensive. The university, however, as a public institution does not have that freedom. If they allow speakers, they must allow all speakers, and cannot discriminate among them according to what they say or will say. Had Berkeley sought to ban Milo I have little doubt that he and his sponsors would have gone to court and they would have won.

      • University systems here must differ immensely from universities back in my home country. They have more autonomy.

        If ten people ask for a speaking spot in an American college, how do they decide who gets it?? There is never someone saying yay or nay and making decisions? The university just agrees to whatever some random speaker or brand asks?

        If that’s the case, that makes no sense to me.

      • We are not talking about instructors here, but outside speakers, who may be invited by student groups, faculty members, the administration etc. They don’t “apply.”

  2. Pingback: On Milo’s Right to Speak — ACADEME BLOG – The Scene

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  4. Thanks for this, Hank, and for reposting Prof. Meranze’s blog post. I’ve shared a link to “On Milo’s Right to Speak” on my Facebook page, with this comment: “As usual, a fine argument from Hank Reichman on AAUP’s ACADEME blog. I’m particularly concerned by his mention of the self-styled “anarchists” who have been bringing violence and vandalism to numerous otherwise-peaceful demonstrations. As a ’60s veteran, I am deeply worried about the ability of agents provocateurs to turn the public against good citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. In the case of UC Berkeley, the response went further, all the way to the U.S. president’s threat to cut UC Berkeley’s federal funding. As we continue to Persist in Resisting, this is a direction where we must turn our vigilance, or risk being styled a violent movement opposed to freedom of speech (in other words, acquire the label properly applied to the “anarchists”).”

  5. Pingback: On Milo’s Demise | ACADEME BLOG

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