You may have heard that Breitbart alum and Twitter-troll-so-trolly-that-he-was-banned-from-Twitter Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at UC Berkeley last night. You might also know that violent protestors blocked that speech by creating chaos including lighting fires. Finally, you might know that President Trump blasted out an angry tweet threatening to withhold federal funding for Cal as a result.
The obvious overarching question here is the so-called Heckler’s Veto — which you’ll learn about in Constitutional Law in law school. The basic idea is that people shouldn’t be able to shut down the speech of others. Rather, it’s been said, the response to repugnant speech is more speech. It’s hard to argue that the Heckler’s Veto wasn’t on display last night.
Yiannopoulos has, in my opinion, odious views. He’s certainly entitled to have those views. He’s entitled to speak them, generally speaking. (Not only that, his engagement with others on social media has been shameful.)
First, let me say that I think the rioters were wrong to do what they did. Full stop.
Now, in assigning blame to other parties, however, context is important. UC Berkeley, the target of Trump’s threats, did not officially invite Yiannopolous. Unless you believe something sinister, the school canceled the event out of fear for the safety of people on campus. Hard to say they’re quashing free speech here. I think they tried their best to stay out of it until they couldn’t.
Yiannopolous was invited by the Berkeley Republicans, a student group. So, another question I find important is the following: Whom should student groups be allowed to invite on campus? It seems to me that there has to be a line drawn somewhere, although I can’t say I necessarily think that Yiannopolous is on the intolerable side of that line. If, say, a campus group were to invite a speaker who calls for genocide, would we just throw up our hands? I think at some point you have to demand that students show respect for each other.
At the risk of getting safe-spacey (and I’m not a fan of safe spaces), students shouldn’t have to feel fear over the climate at their school. If a white supremacist club were allowed on campus, students of color and religious minorities and LGBTQ people would rightly feel that they weren’t getting the treatment they deserve from a learning institution. Yiannopolous’ words and actions have denigrated people on the basis of color and creed. And so, while I don’t think the University ought to punish the Berkeley Republicans, I think they ought to be ashamed of themselves. This invite showed contempt for their fellow students.
Before you tear my head off, yes, the rioters also made people feel unsafe on their campus. And, again, they were wrong, wrong, wrong.
Finally, (sigh) Trump and his tweets. Here is the full text of the tweet in response to the incident (which, not surprisingly, parrots the position taken by a Fox News commentator moments before the 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?
First, let’s dispense with the alternative facts. Berkeley didn’t practice violence on anyone, unless you believe the school sent the protestors to burn their own campus. Which is stupid. The protestors didn’t practice violence on people with a different point of view, which implies that they were beating up Yiannopolous and/or the Berkeley Republicans in retaliation. They did clash with police — violently. And, again, that’s wrong. But that’s different than beating someone up for their own speech.
But here’s what really irks me. Pulling federal funds? As noted above, the University tried to stay out of this. And those federal funds don’t just go to… I mean, what even? Does the President think the funds just go to a jackboot fund? Or a slush fund for administrators? Cal is one of the world’s premiere research universities. To pull the rug out from under them by taking away ALL federal funds would be extraordinarily self defeating. The country and the world are a better place for the many discoveries of Cal luminaries. So, let’s just shut that all down? And you know who steps into the breach when the US stops being a leader in innovation? China.
In sum, there’s plenty of blame to go around, but, given the power that he now has, the President should not be saying — or tweeting — this kind of nonsense.
Okay, one last thing. You may notice I was less harsh on the protestors than the other parties. Well, it seems hate crimes are on the rise. This is in large part the push to legitimize white nationalism by dressing it up as something as harmless sounding as “alt-right.” While speech shouldn’t be suppressed, I certainly think that there ought to be a stigma surrounding hate groups and their beliefs. For those of us who believe this, the so-called “normalization” going on is appalling. Without endorsing violence, I think extraordinary measures are needed to make sure we don’t slide back into a pre-WWII mentality.