By Ariel Pinsky
Milo Yiannopoulos, right-wing writer and editor for Breitbart News, was set to give a speech at the University of California, Berkeley, on the night of February 1st. However, his speech was cancelled amid campus protests that took a violent turn when demonstrators began smashing windows, destroying property, and setting fires using commercial-grade fireworks and Molotov cocktails.
All buildings on campus were on lock down until nearly 11:00 pm, and the UC Police tweeted, “Due to violent demonstration, additional resources are being brought in. Cal students should leave the area immediately.” More than 1,500 protesters were involved, resulting in $100,000 worth in damage to the campus and at least six injuries.
Berkeley claims that several of the protestors were from outside the school. “This university was essentially invaded by more than 100 individuals clad in ninja-like uniforms who were armed and engaged in paramilitary tactics. They were implementing a very clear plan to engage in violence, disruption and property destruction,” said Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof.
Yiannopoulos was evacuated from the campus after, in his words, “violent left-wing protesters tore down barricades, lit fires, threw rocks and Roman candles at the windows and breached the ground floor of the building.”
“They’re absolutely petrified by alternative visions of how the world ought to look,” Milo Yiannopoulos said in a YouTube video posted later that night in response to the protesters.
Even President Trump weighed in, threatening to withdraw federal funding from the school:
If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2017
In recent years, Yiannopoulos’s provocative speeches have been met with protest at Rutgers University, the University of Minnesota, DePaul University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Washington, and UCLA, where students formed human chains to block the entrance of the building he was set to speak at. Last month, the University of California, Davis, cancelled Yiannopoulos’s speech following similar demonstrations in order to avoid further disruption to the campus.
“The hard left, which has become antithetical to free speech in the last few years, has taken a turn post-Trump’s election where they simply will not allow any speaker on campus, even someone as silly and harmless and gay as me, to have their voice heard,” Yiannopoulos said in his YouTube response.
His response sheds light on a disturbing new trend of shutting down speakers on campus who are subjectively and preemptively considered to be too offensive or too extreme. This reduction of virtually all disagreement to ignorance, bigotry, and racism is dangerous and counterproductive. If the protestors would listen before acting, they would quickly realize Yiannopoulos is simply arguing that the monolithic, insulated political culture that exists in many colleges and universities needs to be addressed—and that they are inadvertently proving his point.
UK-born, openly gay Yiannopoulos, who is often labeled by the media as a leader of the alt-right, admits that many of his conservative political views and policy positions align with those of the movement. However, he refuses to identify as the leader of the alt-right because of his sexuality and his religion (his mother is Jewish), two elements that are at odds with the beliefs of certain alt-right members, particularly those of the Neo-Nazi fringes that Yiannopoulos condemns.
The 32-year old has no qualms about debating and even mocking students in his lectures who attempt to challenge him. He also openly criticizes any ideas he disagrees with that are endorsed by progressive social justice, Black Lives Matter, and modern feminism without concern for offending their supporters. Yiannopoulos claims his college tour is part of his efforts to wage war against political correctness and the left-leaning college establishment.
Fordham Professor Charles Camosy argues that there is considerable merit to the claim that colleges today lean left: “In 2014, some 60 percent of college professors identified as either “liberal” or “far-left,” an increase from 42 percent identifying as such in 1990. And while liberal college professors outnumber conservatives 5-to-1, conservatives are considerably more common within the general public. The world of academia is, therefore, different in terms of political temperature than the rest of society, and what is common knowledge and conventional wisdom among America’s campus dwellers can’t be taken for granted outside the campus gates.”
If you look at his personal history, Yiannopoulos seems to have once been a victim of the political correctness he so ardently fights against today—last year in an interview with The New York Times he said, “I’ve wrestled with being religious and being conservative and being gay, but the reason I felt like that is because of other gay people. The only real shaming I’ve ever experienced has been from other gay people when I reveal my politics or my religion.”
The controversial Yiannopoulos became well-known when he got banned from Twitter last July for violating “rules prohibiting participating in or inciting targeted abuse of individuals” when he attacked actress Leslie Jones for her performance in the film Ghostbusters. His tweets coincided with a barrage of racially charged hate tweets directed towards Jones that he refused to take the onus for. “I’m not responsible for what strangers on the Internet post,” Yiannopoulos said, claiming that the ban was a political maneuver by Twitter.
Ironically, protestors typically fail to realize that Yiannopoulos is actually socially liberal on a variety of issues and holds intense disdain for the homophobic, the anti-Semitic, and the rigidly traditional. He claims to only have relationships with African-American men and has a “strict anti-white bedroom policy,” proving that his comments are intended to inflame ultra-conservatives as well as his normal liberal targets. The incendiary Yiannopoulos even went so far as to create a charity he coined the Yiannopoulos Privilege Grant, a scholarship for white men from low-income families who might otherwise have trouble obtaining a higher education.
Though Berkeley publically disagrees with Yiannopoulos’s far-right opinions and actions, the university nonetheless acknowledged that he should have been allowed to speak and “regrets” having been forced to cancel his tour. “While Yiannopoulos’ views, tactics and rhetoric are profoundly contrary to our own, we are bound by the Constitution, the law, our values and the campus’s Principles of Community to enable free expression across the full spectrum of opinion and perspective,” said UC Berkeley in a statement following the cancellation.
Some students who personally disagree with Yiannopoulos agree that he should have been at least afforded the opportunity to speak to the campus. “It’s a sad irony in the fact that the Free Speech Movement was founded here and tonight, someone’s free speech got shut down. It might have been hateful speech, but it’s still his right to speak,” said Shivam Patel, a Berkeley freshmen who supported the peaceful protesters but believes silencing Yiannopoulos should not have been their ultimate goal. He is referring to The Free Speech Movement that started at UC Berkeley in 1964 when administrators tried to restrict political activities on campus and students responded with massive demonstrations.
“The violent rioters at UC Berkeley are representative of a phenomenon I and other actual liberals call the ‘regressive left.’ The regressive left doesn’t truly stand for liberty.
Instead, they stand for the idea that anyone that says anything which offends them or doesn’t fit their narrative can and should be silenced,” wrote Matt Teitelbaum in an op-ed for the Huffington Post. Teitelbaum is the Vice President of College Democrats of Maryland and makes the point that silencing, name-calling, and disruption serve more as dramatic tantrums than respectful dialogues about our differences.
Teitelbaum, who also opposes Yiannopoulos’s political views, urges his fellow Democrats to stop labeling an openly gay, half-Jewish conservative talking head as a “Neo-Nazi,” “fascist,” and “bigot.”
Protestors at the anti-Milo demonstration in Berkeley
Back in 2007, Columbia allowed then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who openly denies the Holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel, to give a lecture on campus. Students were offended by Ahmadinejad’s erratic and hateful rhetoric, but when it was all over and the outrage simmered down, the lecture proved to be a lasting victory for free speech.
As the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart writes, “Everyone has a right to free speech, including Milo.” Perhaps Yiannopoulos should be allowed to release his outrageous views in an open public debate without fear of being violently shut down. Plenty of universities and student groups invite controversial figures to speak on campus in order to expose students to views from the entire political spectrum—the worst case scenario is that opponents will form arguments against those views they disagree with instead of finding them inherently intolerable
In perhaps one of the most famous defenses of free speech, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once wrote in a Court opinion, “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” His powerful words are surprisingly relevant in light of the protesters’ sentiments toward Yiannopoulos and serve to remind us that true freedom of speech means allowing all voices to be heard, from those we actively agree with to those we fundamentally despise.