Free Speech for Milo

I’ll begin by stating what should be—but is no longer—obvious in modern America: Milo Yiannopoulos has an absolute right to freedom of speech. He has a moral right to say whatever he wants within the boundaries of that right, despite the fact that what he says often is morally wrong.

It is also obvious that Yiannopoulos is a despicable human being who, in a rational world, would have no audience. But in our world the racial-nationalist “alt-right” movement has given him a prominent platform, and the regressive left, by seeking to silence him, has made necessary a vocal defense of his rights. So I write about Yiannopoulos while loathing those who cheered him on and those who gave him claim to victim status.

I defend Yiannopoulos’s right to freedom of speech even as I recognize that he is a nihilistic provocateur who apologizes for racists, publishes openly sexist rants, bullies peoplemocks others for their skin color, and revels in living in an allegedly “post-fact era” (a phrase that confuses facts with people’s acceptance of facts).

But despicable people have a right to freedom of speech too. The entire point of the principle of free speech is to protect unpopular and offensive speech too. Even outright fascists and totalitarian jihadists defend the “right” to say what they already believe.

Although I have no interest in inviting Yiannopoulos to speak at an event or listening to him speak (I read his material only to learn the nature of his views), certainly I have an interest in defending his right to speak to those who wish to hear him. Everyone who loves liberty has such an interest.

The Violence at Berkeley

Clearly Yiannopoulos’s freedom of speech was violated by violent thugs who shut down his planned February 1 appearance at the University of California, Berkeley.

I take the university at its word that “about 150 masked agitators” came onto campus and violently shut down the event that the university tried to keep safe:

UC Berkeley officials and UCPD went to extraordinary lengths to plan for this event, working closely with the Berkeley College Republicans [who invited Yiannopoulos] and putting the appropriate resources in place to maintain security. Officials were in contact with other university campuses where Yiannopoulos had been asked to speak, and they paid close attention to lessons learned. Dozens of additional police officers were on duty for Wednesday’s scheduled event, and multiple methods of crowd control were in place. Ultimately, and unfortunately, however, it was impossible to maintain order given the level of threat, disruption and organized violence.

Campus officials added that they regret that the threats and unlawful actions of a few have interfered with the exercise of First Amendment rights on a campus that is proud of its history and legacy as the home of the Free Speech Movement.

It is an open question whether the police officers charged with establishing safety at the event failed to take appropriate action to get the rioters off the streets or simply were too overwhelmed by the violent mob to effectively do their jobs.

What is clear is that government has a responsibility to protect people’s rights, including their speech rights, and when government fails in that responsibility it only encourages further violence. Hopefully at future events police agencies find better ways to stop violent thugs and haul them to jail to await criminal prosecution.

But the main threat to freedom of speech comes not from violent thugs on the streets, nor from inadequate government action against such violence, but from “intellectuals” who openly call for the destruction of free speech.

The Academic Assault on Free Speech

Shockingly, in the aftermath of the violence that shut down Yiannopoulos’s event, the Daily Californian—a Berkeley student-run paper—published five op-eds “in favor of the use of violence in protests” (as a summary puts it). The op-eds equate violence with peaceful protest and violence with speech. In short, these op-eds are anti-liberal, pro-authoritarian screeds far more dangerous than anything Yiannopoulos has said.

The only semi-plausible argument from these op-eds is that, because Yiannopoulos allegedly intended to essentially incite violence against illegal immigrants and others by naming them in the presence of violent people, violence (against third parties and their property) to shut up Yiannopoulos supposedly was justified.

But the op-eds present no credible evidence that Yiannopoulos actually planned to do that—and he explicitly denied that was the case. So, based on rumors about what Yiannopoulos might say and speculation about what some of his supporters might do, these violent street thugs intentionally stopped Yiannopoulos from speaking, in clear violation of his rights. Of course, if Yiannopoulos had been able to speak and if police had reasonably believed that he was intentionally inciting violence against specific persons, that presumably would have been justification for stopping the event. But prior restraint of his speech was not justified.

I should note that the Daily Californian also published several op-eds that denounced the violence that shut down Yiannopoulos’s talk.

Some of Yiannopoulos’s critics do have a point, however; why in the hell is he getting invited to speak on college campuses in the first place?

Speech on Other People’s Dime

The right to freedom of speech means that you may say what you want, unless what you say or how you say it violates others’ rights (as by inciting violence or violating contractual arrangements), while using your own resources or in voluntary association with others.

Free speech “does not mean the right to demand the financial support or the material means to express your views at the expense of other men who may not wish to support you,” as Ayn Rand puts it.

So, for example, Yiannopoulos has no absolute right to speak via Twitter, and that company has banned him from speaking on their site. In my view Twitter selectively targeted Yiannopoulos under vague terms-of-use language mainly because of the racist posts of other users inspired by Yiannopoulos, but whether Twitter acted fairly is a separate issue from whether Twitter, in principle, has the right to set terms of use and ban people who violate them. It does have that right.

To take another example, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) has the right to invite and disinvite Yiannopoulos as a speaker at their event. We can question CPAC’s wisdom in inviting Yiannopoulos to speak given his long history of meanness and bigotry, and we can question CPAC’s fairness in then disinviting him over questionable allegations, but we cannot say that Yiannopoulos has an absolute right to speak at CPAC. He has a right to speak there only if CPAC voluntarily agrees to the arrangement.

[Update: I’m afraid I was initially too quick to trust Yiannopoulos’s explanation of his remarks about sex between men and boys. On reviewing video footage, it does seem that Yiannopoulos advocates sex between adult men and boys as young as thirteen. His remarks are reprehensible—and I don’t think he’ll have to worry about additional invitations to speak on college campuses.]

In general, the right to freedom of speech entails the right not to speak and not to materially support speech you disagree with.

What, then, are we to make of Yiannopoulos’s speaking engagements at state-affiliated and tax-subsidized universities?

No one (at least that I know of) doubts that state-affiliated universities have special obligations under the First Amendment that are not relevant to private institutions. A private institution may restrict speech on its property just as you may restrict strangers from barging into your home to deliver a speech.

As Glen Martin writes for the Cal Alumni Association:

Berkeley law professor Robert Cole observes that First Amendment strictures apply to state actors, not private parties.

“So if the question is do they apply to a state university, the answer, of course, is yes,” says Cole.

In the case of Cal, says Cole, “Berkeley College Republicans is a university-sanctioned organization, and if, as it seems, it issued an invitation and arranged an engagement in accordance with university rules, then the university must allow the event. The university’s role is to remain a neutral marketplace. It can’t cancel a speaking event simply because a speaker is considered controversial, or officials are worried that it could result in bad publicity, or things could get raucous.” . . .

Berkeley law professor Daniel Farber agrees with Cole that Cal—more to the point, any public university—must tread very lightly indeed around free speech issues.

“The Supreme Court has emphasized that the First Amendment is intended to protect ‘uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,’ public debate,” Farber stated in an email, “so in terms of general principles, it seems to me that universities should be very hesitant to exclude a speaker or viewpoint simply because it is offensive or disruptive.”

However, presumably even state-affiliated universities may set rules for student clubs and for the invitation of speakers. I see nothing unconstitutional about a university setting tighter rules about who may be invited to speak.

Regardless, certainly a private institution has every right to set such rules. In my view, Yiannopoulos has no business speaking at any institution of learning, simply because his rantings are in essence anti-intellectual. If I ran such a private institution, certainly I would set rules to preclude the likes of Yiannopoulos from sullying my institution.

None of this changes the fact that, once a college does set up rules for student groups and for guest speakers, and once Yiannopoulos is invited to speak, he does by virtue of the invitation have a right to speak, and government has a responsibility to protect that right.

Beyond that, colleges have an interest (or should have an interest) in fostering the open exchange of ideas. Some people seem to think that the point of college is to build a well-insulated echo chamber for postmodern leftists. The purpose of efforts to “deplatform” and shout down various speakers is to stifle speech and to shut up people with different ideas. My view of Yiannopoulos is that he says nothing worth hearing—he deals in insults, not ideas—and therefore is not worth inviting. But I could list dozens of other controversial speakers who definitely are worth hearing (such as Ben Shapiro, Christina Hoff Sommers, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, Flemming Rose, and Yaron Brook, to name just a few).

But there is another detail in the context of tax-subsidized institutions that almost all commentators totally ignore: What about the rights of the taxpayers? Ultimately there is no such thing as free speech if people may be compelled to support speech they find repugnant. And yet government, by forcing people to subsidize Berkeley and other institutions, is in fact forcing people to materially support speech that in many cases they disagree with and even morally condemn. Certainly I do not wish to help pay for Yiannopoulos to speak, and government violates my right to freedom of speech when if forces me to do so.

Ultimately, the right to freedom of speech requires that government stop forcing people to finance speech they disagree with. And, yes, that applies to universities as well as to media outlets such as National Public Radio.

By the same token, universities cannot be fully free from political strings until they are free from government purse strings. Many leftists understandably see as ridiculous the idea that universities must invite clownish rabble-rousers such as Yiannopoulos to speak. But it is equally ridiculous that universities that accept tax dollars may prohibit people such as Yiannopoulos from speaking. The source of the paradox is the tax funding, and the resolution to the paradox is to remove such funding. Then leave universities free to set their policies for student groups and for guest speakers as they deem best.

For the case at hand we can set such deeper considerations aside. What most urgently matters is that Yiannopoulos had a right to speak at Berkeley and that violent thugs violated his rights and the rights of those who wanted to hear him.

About the worst that can be said about Yiannopoulos’s talks is that he insults people and facilitates fascist ideas. The people who forcibly stopped him from speaking acted like fascists. And, incidentally, they and their allies are the people primarily responsible for Yiannopoulos’s undeserved fame.

Yiannopoulos our civilization can survive. The obliteration of free speech our civilization cannot survive. Let’s act accordingly.

Image: Kmeron for LeWeb


The Relationship between Free Speech and the First Amendment

I’d like to clarify a point based on some feedback via Facebook. One critic claimed that rioters did not violate Yiannopoulos’s freedom of speech because the rioters were not government actors, and the First Amendment pertains only to government actors.

I agree that the First Amendment pertains only to government actors, but I point out that government actors are not the only parties who can violate a person’s right to freedom of speech.

The “free” in free speech pertains to one’s ability so speak, free from the physical coercion of others. Private parties as well as government actors are capable of forcibly silencing someone, as the rioters did at Berkeley. Such actions don’t specifically violate the First Amendment, but they certainly violate the right to freedom of speech.

—Ari Armstrong
February 23, 2017

Leave a Comment