Although university administrators at the University of California, Berkeley, cancelled a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos last Wednesday following an eruption of violent protest on the campus, the right-wing provocateur found reason to be triumphant about the incident.
In a CNN interview the next day, Yiannopoulos remarked, “I always prefer to do the show, but all the headlines today and tomorrow will simply demonstrate what I have been saying: that the progressive, social justice side is incapable of debate, is incapable of rational response to the opinions with which it disagrees.”
This distortion is typical of Yiannopoulos, who among other stances claimed President Donald Trump was “blacker” than former President Barack Obama, declared his birthday World Patriarchy Day and claimed gay rights “made us dumber.” In fact, few, if any, of the 1,500 UC Berkeley students who protested were responsible for the violence and roughly $100,000 worth of property damage on Wednesday night. The damage has instead been attributed to 150 masked members of an anarchist group known as the “Black Bloc.”
The protests were counterproductive and destructive, ultimately garnering Yiannopoulos far more attention than he would have received had he given his speech without incident. Thus, universities are presented with a perplexing Catch-22: Give hatred a platform, or else affirm his narrative that colleges stifle certain voices and silence free speech. As Yiannopoulos says himself, he wins either way.
But for once Yiannopoulos — a senior editor at the far-right Breitbart News Network and self-proclaimed showman who claims radically abhorrent views toward women, transgender individuals, Muslims, undocumented immigrants and other groups — may be right.
Although Yiannopoulos himself has not always served as a model of respectful discourse, the university should not subvert its own commitment to free speech by barring a speaker invited to the university, even if they are as repugnant as Yiannopoulos. Of course, the university itself should not sanitize the hate speech espoused by speakers like Yiannopoulos with a university-sponsored invitation.
In the case of UC Berkeley, it was not the institution itself that extended the invite, but rather a student organization — the Berkeley College Republicans. This distinction is significant, because while the university can refrain from providing Yiannopoulos a platform, it should not deny student organizations the ability to invite a speaker to campus. As such, this Editorial Board believes Georgetown University should always protect free speech rights within student groups so long as they remain respectful and permit students to peaceably assemble to protest outside.
Moreover, Georgetown has previously hosted contested speakers, including feminism critic Christina Hoff Sommers in April 2015 and Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards in 2016. But each time, the university upheld the ability of its students to invite these speakers and assured those who disagreed had the ability to protest — and campus discourse was made all the richer as a result.
If invited by a student organization, Yiannopoulos ought to be permitted to speak on campus, but not because he is intellectually stimulating or worthwhile in any capacity. He should be permitted on campus because denying his worldview is not the same as defeating it.
Yiannopoulos strives to radically affirm free speech with his incendiary comments, and by denying him a platform provided at the invitation of a student group, the university would only be playing into his narrative of academia as incompatible with freedom of expression.
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