“Those who do not support free speech for those they despise do not support free speech at all.” —Noam Chomsky
A scheduled appearance by controversial self-described radical anti-Christian feminist Mila Ziannopolous at UC Berkeley was canceled when campus police were unable to quell demonstrators bent upon blocking her appearance. Student demonstrators were joined by 100-150 ninja-clad members of an Oakland-based “anti-Communist brigade” who smashed windows and set fires. Stephen Jones, one of the leaders of the conservative student protesters, stated, “I believe in free speech, but purveyors of hate speech have no right to speak on this campus or anywhere else.”
This incident followed cancellation of an appearance by Ziannapolous at UC Davis two weeks ago due to threats of violence. She had been invited by campus Democrats who emphasized that they did not necessarily agree with her views but felt she had a right to express them. For the First Amendment to have real meaning, Sheila Jackson, president of the campus Democrats stated, “it must be extended to those whose views many may find offensive.” A writer for a radical left website, Ziannapolous has asserted that all males, by virtue of their gender dominance, are complicit in a rape culture and that Christianity is a religion that subjugates women and minorities.
On the same day as the UC Berkeley riot, a performance by an outspoken liberal comedian at New York University was ended when conservative students stormed the auditorium and pepper-sprayed him. In 2014 a conservative pro-life professor at UC Santa Barbara harassed a pro-choice demonstrator and seized her sign. Other incidents in which liberal speakers have been blocked from appearing on college campuses have occurred in recent years. Conservative students have claimed that offensive views held by these speakers about race, religion, and gender violate their right to a safe zone.
Of course, the stories above are fake news of my creation. I flipped the script of events that have occurred recently on college campuses involving incendiary conservative speakers. But if conservative students did engage in the suppression of speech described. students on the left surely would be invoking Voltaire, John Milton, John Stuart Mill, and Martin Luther King in a robust defense of free expression and with justification. Thus it is dismaying to me as a liberal that so many students and, even more disturbingly, so many faculty members on university campuses appear unclear on the concept of free expression when it applies to those they strongly disagree with. Also dismaying is the silence of the many on the left who do understand the concept but decline to speak out in defense of free speech.
Brietbart writer Milo Yiannopolous, whose appearances were blocked at Davis and Berkeley, is a provocateur, whose stock and trade is baiting the left. He is a gay man who feels gays should stay in the closet. He ridicules the transgendered and immigrants. He accuses feminists of wallowing in victimhood and calls the rape culture a fantasy. Yiannopolous also went too far when he condoned pedophilia in a 2013 video, recently released, which got him disinvited as a speaker at a CPAC conference and ended up with his resignation from Breitbart on Tuesday.
Those of us old enough to remember the ‘60s recall that provocateurs on the left like Eldridge Cleaver, a convicted rapist whose views on race were condemned by many civil rights leaders, were not merely tolerated but frequently welcomed on college campuses precisely because they were controversial. Those who objected to inviting such figures were dismissed with “What part of Voltaire don’t you understand?” and rightly so. Even George Lincoln Rockwell, then leader of the American Nazi Party, was allowed to speak at UCSB in 1966. He was picketed by protesters, an exercise in their First Amendment rights, but there was no organized effort to block his appearance.
Since that period, a view has taken root on college campuses that freedom of speech can be applied selectively and that some students and faculty members can appoint themselves guardians of what is permissible speech. The arbitrary result: Yiannapoulos encountered mass resistance while Louis Farrakhan, with a deserved reputation as an anti-Semite and misogynist, spoke at Berkeley in 2012 without getting the Black Bloc treatment.
Some who have participated in efforts to block not just outspoken conservatives but even speakers like Madeleine Albright and Laura Bush (!) among many others, have advanced the Orwellian argument that prohibiting speech is, in fact, an act of free speech (Newspeak: “Suppression of speech equals freedom of speech”). A number of demonstrators even condoned the storm trooper tactics of the Black Bloc anarchists who assaulted supporters of Yiannapolous at Berkeley. Yvette Felarca, a leader of the group Any Means Necessary, declared, “Everyone cheered. … Everyone was there with us in political agreement of the necessity of shutting it down, whatever it was going to take.”
Anyone who is invited by a student group to speak at a public university has an absolute right to do so under the First Amendment. This right is not conditional or situational or debatable. Advocacy of any idea in the abstract is protected; only that narrow range of speech directly linked to specific illegal activity can be prohibited under the Constitution. The Supreme Court has ruled that even hate speech is protected and for good reason. There is no consensus on where the line is between offensive or controversial speech and hate speech. Empowering any entity to draw that line creates a dangerous slippery slope. The antidote to hate speech, as the American Civil Liberties Union has long argued, is not suppression of speech, but more speech.
In a class on the First Amendment, Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC Irvine Law School. and an ACLU liberal in the best tradition, is addressing this declining understanding in academia of what free speech means. He notes that the views of students on this subject evolve during the course as they are exposed to the history of speech and repression. They learn that the same arguments currently being used to rationalize suppression of speech have been used for centuries, often to repress movements on the left. They learn that whenever a group has asserted itself as an arbiter of permissible speech, it has abused that power.
The Free Speech Movement that emerged on the Berkeley campus in 1964 rejected the notion that college administrators had the right to restrict political advocacy. The irony now is that it is administrators who are resisting calls by students and faculty to restrict speech. Recent UC presidents are to be lauded for a full- throated defense of all types of advocacy, whether by a Farrakhan or a Yiannopolous. Preserving the free marketplace of ideas is an existential priority for academia. Sadly, survival of that free marketplace may require that students and faculty consider taking Remedial Voltaire.