Yiannopoulos and the Debate on Campus Speech
Earlier this year at UC Berkeley, a speaking event by Milo Yiannopoulos was cancelled following riots and violent protests. Yiannopoulos is an alt-right provocateur who espouses views which many consider nationalistic and prejudiced, provoking widespread condemnation of his speeches. The rioting before his speech at Berkeley has ignited a firestorm of public debate over free speech on university campuses and the acceptable scope of protest in response to such speaking.
The debate has also reached Skidmore. After several conversations with Skidmore students about these riots, I realized quite a few believed the rioting at UC Berkeley was justified and that it is acceptable to use violence against alleged bigots.
Skidmore had its own Berkeley incident in 2013, when students hijacked a faculty meeting and demanded that the commencement speaker, former CEO of the Anglo-American mining corporation, Cynthia Carroll, be disinvited. Despite the protesters’ request for “open dialogue,” President Glotzbach was not given any chance to speak, overridden by the students each time.
Many college students applaud these violent tactics, saying that their responses were acceptable since Yiannopoulus is known for his provocative and offensive writing. The rioters felt it was their moral duty to ensure that Yiannopoulos did not have the chance to make a public speech against sanctuary campuses. In fact, this kind of response to divisive speakers has gotten quite a bit of support on college campuses.
These students do not seem to grasp that violence is a double-edged sword. When they violently repress any speech, they repress all speech. There is nothing more fundamental to a democracy than each individual’s right to voice his or her own opinion. Without this right, there cannot be a United States and there cannot be any liberty. Many who endorse these riots believe that the only way to protect civil rights is to curtail civil liberties. Not only is this a flawed belief, but it is also a dangerous one.
A mob can never have the final say about who does or does not have the right to speak. Even if the speech is morally problematic or egregious, a violent mob cannot be allowed to police it. The rioting at UC Berkeley has been justified on dangerous premises—namely, that the judgment of a crowd is an adequate reason to incite violence.
Politics on campuses across America are endangered by this logic. How can anyone be expected to have an open discussion when facing the constant threat of violent reprisal? Many students are enamored with the idea that everyone should be able to speak, but only as long as that speech does not cause offense or indignation. The riots at UC Berkeley and the ongoing debate about speech on campuses lend the weight of violence to students’ judgment. These repressive tactics cannot be condoned whenever a student feels offended.
However, this is not to mention the profound weakness that students show when they resort to rioting as a means of argument. They are, in effect, admitting that their viewpoints cannot withstand uncensored rhetoric. It is my firm belief that liberal views can be vindicated through rigorous speech and debate. I believe most liberal viewpoints are morally superior to those screamed about on the alt-right. I cannot, however, abide by the view that mob justice is a moral way to enforce them, especially in environments that are as theoretically free and open as college campuses.
There has perhaps never been a place in America that is as tolerant as our college campuses have been. During the 1970s, opposition to the Vietnam War formed on college campuses. Liberal students demanded the right to speak their mind about the war, and campaigned specifically for their freedom to speak. It’s ironic that the most liberal students now are the ones most willing to give up that liberty. Anarchy, communism, socialism, social justice, and virtually every value that has shaped our society found traction in college students and on college campuses. Unfettered, peaceful debate has always been encouraged on campus, regardless of background or opinion. It is necessary that this be preserved in colleges across the country.
Colleges incubate future leaders, intellectuals, and founders. There is no doubt that civil liberties nationwide are in danger when they are violently oppressed on campus. If colleges no longer value peaceful, free speech, then the rest of the United States will not either. It is no longer enough to protest for civil liberties – we must now support them with our actions as well. As debate swirls about speech on campus, I will defend anyone’s right to speak without fear, even if I disagree with the speaker.