Free Speech Movement veterans and historians comment on Milo Yiannopoulos free speech controversy

As veterans and historians of the Free Speech Movement, we are writing to comment on the forthcoming visit to Berkeley of Milo Yiannopoulos.

Yiannopoulos is a bigot who comes to campus spouting vitriol so as to attract attention to himself. His modus operandi is to bait students of color, transgender students and anyone to the left of Donald Trump in the hopes of sparking a speaking ban or physical altercation so he can pose as a free speech martyr. His campus events are one long publicity stunt designed to present himself as a kind of hip, far right, youth folk hero — sort of Hitler Youth with cool sunglasses. “Look at me, I’m so rad, the PC police won’t let me speak on campus.” That’s his whole shtick in a nutshell, along with bigotry.

Banning him just plays into his hands politically, which is one reason why we were glad to see the UC administration refuse to adopt such a ban. True to form, however, Yiannopoulos and his Berkeley College Republican sponsors nonetheless put on their phony free speech martyrdom routine when the administration asked them to pay for security needed to ensure that the incendiary bigotry of their event does not end in bloodshed.

Berkeley’s free speech tradition, won through struggle — suspension, arrest, fines, jail time — by Free Speech Movement activists is far more important than Yiannopoulos, and it is that tradition’s endurance that concerns us. “The content of speech or advocacy should not be restricted by the university”: That’s what the pivotal Dec. 8 resolution says, as adopted by the Berkeley faculty’s Academic Senate when it finally backed the FSM’s free speech demand in 1964. Under the terms of that resolution, even the worst kind of bigot, including Yiannopoulos, must be allowed to speak on campus. So the UC administration was acting in accord with those principles when it refused to ban Yiannopoulos.

We were thus disappointed that so many Berkeley faculty signed an open letter supporting such a ban and criticizing the UC administration for refusing to ban Yiannopoulos. The best way to battle his bigoted discourse is to critique and refute it. And really, that is not hard to do. Just have a look at his speeches, which are devoid of logic and humanity. For example, one of his speeches we read online finds him arguing against criticism of racial slavery in the U.S. since many societies had slavery, which is basically a kind of moral relativism for dummies. If even a 10th of the 100 or so faculty who signed those pro-ban open letters showed up to ask this bigot tough questions or held a teach-in about what’s wrong and unethical in his vitriol (and in the rest of the so called “alt right”), they could puncture his PR bubble instantly, avoid casting him in the role of free speech martyr and prove that the best cure for ignorant and hateful speech is speech that unmasks its illogic, cruelty and stupidity. At a time when we have a bigoted president taking office in the White House it seems especially important for universities to expose and refute bigoted speakers — banning them evades that responsibility.

We urge students to express their opposition to the bigotry of Yiannopoulos and all speakers on campus whose views are hateful, and to do so non-violently, in ways that do not prevent such speakers from making or completing their remarks. Those tempted  to block access to or disrupt speeches by such reactionaries should resist that temptation and reflect on FSM leader Mario Savio’s criticism of the disruption of  UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick’s speech  at Berkeley in the Reagan era. Savio said that, for the sake of Berkeley’s “very precious” tradition of free speech, Kirkpatrick had to be accorded the right to speak. While conceding that her militaristic views might seem intolerable, Mario argued that “for our own good we need to find ways of tolerating what is almost intolerable.” Making a distinction between heckling (raising tough questions in a robust manner) and disruption (drowning out or in some other way preventing the speaker from completing her remarks), Savio urged protesters “to stay on this side of the line that separates heckling from disruption.” This would “prevent what she represents from crushing our liberties—which we can use … to oppose and I hope eliminate what she represents.”

Finally, this whole controversy leads us to call on the  Berkeley College Republicans to reflect on their own approach to organizing. While you do have the right to sponsor hateful speakers, how does it serve the campus community, your classmates, or the party of Lincoln to do so?


Robert Cohen, Bettina Aptheker, Susan Druding, Lee Felsenstein, Barbara Garson, Jackie Goldberg, Lynne Hollander Savio, Steve Lustig, Anita Medal, Jack Radey, Gar Smith, Barbara Stack are the Free Speech Movement Archive Board of Directors.

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  • Michael Kochin

    Milo is a fairly convention liberal by the standards of thirty years ago. Just compare him with Camille Paglia.

  • Hanzo

    Uh, the Free Speech movement started in 1776. Nice try though.

  • L O

    Amen to that!

  • Right on! And well said.

    This whole think smacks of a set-up. He’s only speaking at colleges where he knows for certain he will provoke opposition. And the Black Bloc hooligans who then riot in response by trashing and burning play right into his — and Republican — hands. When KKK and right-wing vigilantes begin to violently assault progressive voices in Red states like Alabama and Kansas and we come to their defense they will effectively use this against us to discredit our free speech position. During the next four years under Trump it’s going to be liberals, progressives, and radicals who are going to be under the real free speech threat and we should be strengthening our position not undermining it.

    Bruce Hartford
    Webspinner: Civil Rights Movement Veterans website

  • Jeremy Stanhope

    If Mr. Yiannopoulos were skewering Christians, Whites, Conservatives with biting satire he’d be lauded as the new Lenny Bruce and be getting plaudits. His insults would be called cutting edge, etc. Instead because it is the sacred shibboleths of the left he is name called, bigot, Hitler Youth (Godwin’s Law anyone?), and hateful.

    This thinly disguised bullying screed fools no one.

  • Rick Huebsch

    I am aligned with the recommended course of action to preempt the circus act by asking intelligent questions. I am disappointed, however that the article asks the right question at the end but doesn’t recommend a solution. It was the violent few who undermined the protest. The event wasn’t canceled until the barricade was thrown through a student union window. The violence was predictable and the BCRs could have been counseled in a more effective way than simply to ante up $7K. For any future protest against Trump to achieve its intent, the violent few must be prevented from participating.

    • Donald Wood

      yes, imo all protests would be more effective if they were self policing. broken windows just make a message invalid.

      • L O

        And spray painting your message on the side of the building is quicker than chisel and hammer.

  • Winston

    Can someone point to any actual evidence that Milo is “bigoted”? And no, just having a viewpoint that is not the same as boilerplate college orthodoxy is not bigotry. Hopefully when you are done with your overpriced degree you will at least comprehend that disagreement, even about politics, is OK. It won’t hurt you. But it must be psychologically damaging to label everyone as “racist” or “bigoted” a priori and to write them off as beyond the pale. Too much of that lazy nonsense going around. It is like a cult. I guess in the future everyone will be a bigot for 15 minutes.

  • vee

    Last time I’ve checked , free speech did not include giving a microphone to every imbecile that wants to. Nor president’s office to every insane person who wants it.

    • Donald Wood

      maybe you checked in the wrong place?

    • Jeremy Stanhope

      Free speech includes letting campus groups choose their own speakers and not have the university or government interfere with their selections.

      The Office of the President goes to the person with the most electoral votes.

      • vee

        A majority of votes in any of the two cases certainly doesn’t make racism right.

  • Silver Meteor

    So you use your forum to bash Milo into the ground while pretending it’s about free speech. Yea right, who are you kidding?

    He’s a bright young man who puts on a good show by combining frivolity with seriousness all the while saying little more than what most Americans already think to themselves. Sure he’s over the top sometimes but he does that on purpose using it as a tool to pull the far right towards the center.

    Those on the far left are clueless because they absorb nothing but leftist media. Liberals are fleeing the left in droves; I’m one of them and I’m coming across more and more on social media as time passes. You’re the reason Trump won. Congratulations.

    • okilloran

      “Sure he’s over the top sometimes but he does that on purpose using it as a tool to pull the far right towards the center.” Uh…no. He does it on purpose to inflame, to solicit attention, to disrupt, to inflict pain on others, and to foment and spread hatred. How is that moving anyone to the center?!

  • To nixon

    I wonder how many in the Speech Police will follow Mr Cohen’s advice. BTW. I haven’t heard Professor Robert Reich, who wrote the foreword to Mr Cohen’s book, speak out on this issue. I doubt that we’ll see him at the event standing up for Free Speech. He didn’t even sign the letter.

  • disqus_lCik0TlIfq

    It’s just that the free speech protestors of the 1960s fought hard to speak truth to power. This guy is demanding his right to bully the vulnerable and also to erase people’s histories. He should be allowed to speak outside with a bullhorn like he did at UC Davis, along with fringe folks. But inviting him into campus space legitimizes him in a way that is not deserved. Would we bring someone who distorts biology or math in the name of “free speech?” I don’t think so. So why should we legitimize someone who distorts history?

    • RaisingMac

      Quit pretending that politics is like math; it isn’t. In math, there is only one correct answer. In politics, there are only opinions.

  • Stephen Diamond

    I was at the Kirkpatrick event. Mario Savio was mistaken (and he was not there). She was mildly heckled by a small number of activists at the rear of Wheeler. British Prime Ministers endure far worse every week from the loyal opposition. But Kirkpatrick chose to overreact and walked off the stage refusing to continue speaking which she could have easily done.

  • Jerry Lindsey

    Jerry Lindsey I was arrested in the FSM protest and graduated in 1965. I am a strong free speech advocate no matter what the subject. Free speech is about free and open speech not about the content of that speech. You failed to quote one sentence from the many debates moderated by neutral moderators with feminists, black lives matter supporters, anti-trump folks, anti-brexit folks, pro-immigration folks, social justice warriors of all stripes and positions. He has offered to debate anyone on any subject. Why don’t you take him up on any one of his “bigoted” positions?
    His college tour has been disrupted, cancelled (UC Davis), and provoked mayhem on the part of the “compassionate” left. Let us see what sort of protest occurs on Feb 1 when he is scheduled to speak.
    And then your last sentence chastising the College Republicans; Are you the arbiter of what serves the campus community, or the judge of what constitutes hateful speakers?
    I am disgusted with the FSM board of directors and this op-ed.
    I hope the protesters allow Milo to speak. I would even suggest you attend his talk.

    • DoubleDogDiogenes

      No thanks. Just because he spouts his hate and nonsense, I am under no obligation to listen to one more of his canned rants and be subject to his pseudo-intellect. But feel free to be a groupie Jerry.

      • Hanzo

        You’re a fascist.

  • Devon

    I don’t agree with Milo’s views (or any conservative for that matter), but Milo is a direct result of neo-liberalism gone off the rails into crazy-town.

    Don’t like what he says? Man up (or whichever noun best describes you today)
    and debate the little pr!ck. Shutting down
    discussion you don’t like is the exact opposite of liberalism…it’s fascism.

    America is tired of silly identity politics. We don’t care what your eyebrows look like…we care about actually important issues like the economy. Everything you’ve written here is all noise and no signal.

    • Josh


      You’re a true progressive who’s actually worthy of that label….

      Sadly an endangered species today :-/

  • Milo exists because the progressives made it impossible to keep a job while expressing conservative opinions. Milo is the logical next step, the antifragile conservative commentator. Instead of trying to avoid controversy that might cost him his job, he courts controversy in order to make an income. Milo knows he can never have a “real” job with his track record, so he is compelled to keep making waves.

    • L O

      ” real” Job ? He is the senior editor for Brietbart.

  • Rick F.

    I agree completely with this commentary. The antidote to offensive speech is not to suppress it but to make clear why it’s so odious. By all means, picket, protest, and ask difficult questions. But banning Yiannopoulos would be counterproductive.

  • ShadrachSmith

    I love Milo. This is the administration awarding the snowflakes a ‘heckler’s veto’, the ability to limit speech because the SJWs might burn the place down if he shows up.

    The ‘hecklers veto’ is a tool of oppression by tyrants. They give it to their tools.

  • Steve Allen

    As a participant in the Free Speech Movement in the mid-60’s, I am in full agreement with the contents of this letter. Free speech is not just for speech you agree with.

    • Hanzo

      The mid-1760’s? The Free Speech movement didn’t start in the 1960’s, we had Free Speech for over 140 years by then.

  • Thank you, FSM Archives Board, for weighing in on this and for all that you do!

  • Peter Wiesner

    I generally agree with Robert Cohen’s position that Breitbart’s Yiannopoulos should not be barred from speaking. Allowing him to speak provides an opportunity to challenge his views and to determine the extent to which he and others from the Altright are influencing the Republican Party. If he engages purely in hate speech and refuses to respond to moderated questions by a neutral party, then I think there is no obligation for the academic community to permit his appearance.

    • thompson_richard

      Hi Peter! Call me 619-519-9187

  • irachaleff

    While I know nothing about the speaker in question I am proud of the philosophic consistency of the Free Speech Movement, of which I was part, as represented in this Op-ed by the FSM Board. We are the sunset. The student body today is the sunrise. Keep rising on the sacrosanct principles of free speech while elevating the consciousness required for the evolution of our complex, magnificent and sometimes awful species..

    • Silver Meteor

      Your student body is the sunrise? What planet are you living on?

    • L O

      I didn’t read anything tangible under all that fluff and garnish.

  • Patriarchy Pete

    I’m black and you’re wrong. End of story.

  • David Stephenson

    While I applaud the letter for standing up for free speech, the repeated denigration of Milo with the use of the words hateful and bigot to describe him (bigot used no fewer than 6 times) is false and shows the writer has not even bothered to listen to any of Milo’s speeches.

    Milo is a popular, witty, charismatic force to be reckoned with and the left has nothing to counter with other than their usual M.O. of name calling. Pathetic. Your arrogant self-righteousness is your downfall.

    • Les Perelman

      As someone who came to Berkeley two year after the FSM but who sat in with Mario at the Navy Table Incident, I too applaud the statement of the FSM Board. Mr. Stephenson, I would be happy to argue the merits of Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech offline. I briefly looked at one of his talks on YouTube and my first impression is that his speech is bigoted, facile, and puerile. For example, he states “lesbianism is to witchcraft as Donald Trump is to winning.” I find the analogy stupid and offensive. If you disagree, let’s argue using specific examples. The great lesson of FSM was the best way to fight speech is with more speech. That is what I am doing right now.
      Les Perelman ’70

      • okilloran

        “lesbianism is to witchcraft as Donald Trump is to winning.”
        I don’t even know what that means. It’s nonsense…

        • L O

          He also said ” liberal leftys are afraid of laughter because they can’t control it”. Most of these comments validates his opinion.

    • Silver Meteor

      Thank you David, I couldn’t have said it better.

    • okilloran

      BIGOT: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudice, especially one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance. I would say that this describes Milo perfectly…

      • David Stephenson

        I say you are incorrect. However, it might describe you.

  • IskurBlast

    Actually charging excessive fees is also an unconstitutional chilling of speech.

    • sss

      Oh, lookatchu. Throwing around the term “unconstitutional chilling of speech.” Do you have a single cite to a single case that supports your proposition? Are you maybe thinking of Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement? Because that specifically concerned a DISCRETIONARY policy where a local government official himself determined fees based on the content of the speech.

      In this case, we have a routine policy applied to ALL student groups based on number of individuals in attendance. Anyway, cheers! Have a great day!

      • ShadrachSmith

        No political tyranny over political opposition here, he said.

      • IskurBlast

        Shut up the minutia of circumstances does not matter. Thats like saying you can segregate Asians because brown v. Board of Education only dealt with black people.

        Shut up

      • Josh

        @sss –

        What would would your position be if feminist and other “progressive” events were routinely disrupted by large groups of Trump supporters using violence to try to shut them down?

        Would you still say that the progressive groups should be responsible for paying large security fees and bonds?

        Or would you say that the university has a responsibility to protect free speech from the violence fascist thugs trying to shut it down?…

        • sss

          Not going to speak to what I think should be routine student org policy, but I think that it is perfectly reasonable for the University to require feminist & progressive & conservative & all other student groups to pay security fees entirely based on attendance for the event (not for expected counter-demonstrations). The security fee BCR was required to pay was about $6,300, if I recall correctly.

          This is a routine security fee typically applied to events of this size. The University itself and UCPD had to fund, without BCR help, extra security. (See above article.) That is a separate matter. The University pretty much did all it could to facilitate free speech.

          On another note, you’re clearly not from here else you would understand that the people who are violent and trying to shut it down do not represent the campus. They literally do this at all major demonstration events on campus, and they’re not a part of the progressive coalition that was attempting to counter-demonstrate against Milo.

          • Josh

            @sss –

            I know that “deplatforming” – i.e. using disruption tactics to try to shut down events by speakers that one disagrees with – has been a common tactic of many “progressives” on college campuses around North America for quite a number of years now.

            Most typically haven’t used the extreme tactics of the “black bloc” types, but with the same general goal of preventing others from speaking.

            “The University pretty much did all it could to facilitate free speech.”

            So then why did they have so few cops outside the student union and allow the rioters to run amok for so long without making arrests or otherwise trying to restrain them or push them back?

            “the people who are violent and trying to shut it down do not represent the campus. They literally do this at all major demonstration events on campus, and they’re not a part of the progressive coalition that was attempting to counter-demonstrate against Milo.”

            Does this “black bloc”/”antifa” group try to shut down progressive speakers who give speeches at Berkeley?…

            “The security fee BCR was required to pay was about $6,300, if I recall correctly….

            This is a routine security fee typically applied to events of this size.”

            This is a huge amount of money for a student group to be paying, and I’ve very skeptical about how “routine” this is. If it were routine then every feminist or progressive or environmental group who brought in a lecturer or comedian to perform before a large auditorium would be paying these exorbitant fees – on top of whatever the speaker was charging for honorarium.

            From what I understand though, these fees aren’t “routine,” but are only charged when the school believes that the speaker is likely to provoke a violent reaction (e.g. with Milo). Progressive groups then aren’t charged this fee because it’s pretty much unheard of for conservatives to riot in order to shut down progressive events.

            In other words then, the bad behavior of violent extremist groups like “black bloc” are *rewarded* because they’re often able to get events they oppose shut down, and even when they’re not, they’re able to get universities like UCB to charge outrageous fees.

            My point was that if violent mobs of Trump supporters were targeting progressive events and trying to shut them down this wouldn’t be tolerated. All means necessary would be used to stop the fascist thugs, and the progressive groups wouldn’t be forced to pay extra for having their basic right to safety protected.

          • sss

            1. Um, they were throwing a gay dance party outside of the venue. It was a demonstration. Even if they wanted to shut down the speaker, they have the right to demonstrate. It’s protected by the 1st Amendment. If the protest had remained peaceful, you would have had two groups speaking freely that night.

            2. Because the event was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration plus a speech. No idea why UCPD didn’t do more to stop black bloc. But that’s not really something the University has control of. Please note that UCPD has acted repressive toward many a progressive protestor, even beating folks back when Occupy Cal happened. UCPD failed, but it’s not a matter of non-police University policy nor is it students. If you want to take UCPD’s actions and use it to criticize the University as a whole, that’s your prerogative. But it’s not indicative of the trend you’re trying to paint of liberal institutions shutting down free speech. It was the failure of one on-campus police department.

            3. There are two issues here. 1) Does the black bloc try to shut down progressive speakers? No because there aren’t too many progressive speakers hosted that are as big name as Milo. 2) Does the black bloc target progressive demonstrations? Yes.

            4. What’s your understanding? Have you ever planned an event through the University? Are you familiar with university policies? Do you attend UC Berkeley and host student organization events? If so, I urge you to submit a proposal via Event Services and avail yourself of the routine fees applied to all speakers based on expected event attendance.

            5. Your point is not only not supported by any evidence but also does nothing to refute the idea that, for what the University predicted and for what resources the University has, all means necessary WERE deployed. So there really is no use attempting to address your assertion that “this wouldn’t have happened if it had been a progressive speaker and Trump supporters were targetting the event.” Need I remind you that UCPD has beaten progressive protestors and allowed things to burn in the streets of Berkeley even when progressive demonstrations happen.

            Anyway, I hope you have a great day. Cheers :)

          • Josh


            1. Throwing gay dance parties is fine, and that’s not the issue here It’s a red herring.

            The relevant issue is people breaking windows, pepper-spraying and beating up Milo’s attendees, and setting equipment on fire.

            Your rights, such as freedom of speech, stop at the point that you start violating the rights of others.

            2. I agree that the PD failed to do their job, but am very skeptical of your assertion that the uni administration doesn’t have influence over them. I’m pretty sure that if the administrators had told PD that they expect them to devote all necessary recourses and use all means necessary to prevent a violent mob from shutting down the event then they would have done so.

            3. So you’re arguing that the black bloc would try to shut down progressive speakers if they were more famous?…

            So then someone like Noam Chomsky never speaks at Berkeley?

            And how exactly does black bloc “target” progressive demos there? Do you mean actually attacking attendees, or just committing violence and mayhem nearby in a way that makes the larger group look bad?

            4. Yes, I have organized multiple university events.

            5. BS! Even the cops present there could have done more to push the rioters back, and they could have easily called for back-up, both from within their own department and also from other nearby law enforcement agencies.

            And there’s no reason to believe that more law enforcement backup would not have promptly arrived if a group of violent Trump supporters were attacking a progressive or feminist speaking event.

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