As the ACLU and the preeminent defender of the freedom of speech, we have been asked what our thoughts are about the upcoming “Free Speech Week” being hosted by the Berkeley Patriot working in partnership with known provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. The series of events, starting Sunday, will apparently highlight Yiannopoulos, Stephen Bannon, Ann Coulter and other speakers who have espoused white nationalism or views disparaging people of color, LGBTQ+ people, people who practice the Islamic faith and other marginalized communities.
To be clear, the ACLU finds these views to be repugnant and contrary to the values we fight for. We have never hesitated to use our First Amendment rights to denounce racism, bigotry and hate. At the same time, the ACLU believes it is unconstitutional for the government, including public universities, to shut down speakers because of their viewpoints, no matter how offensive. We believe strongly in the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and peaceful protest embodied in our state and federal constitutions. We believe these rights extend even to the most repugnant groups — including bigots and white supremacists.
However, in light of missed deadlines and the confusion — seemingly orchestrated by the organizers themselves — about who in fact is going to appear during Free Speech Week, it’s not even clear that the speakers actually want to speak. Campus officials appear to be going out of their way to finalize logistics with organizers, as they did last week for a speech by Ben Shapiro, a conservative writer who formerly worked for Breitbart News. It seems as though the very purpose of Free Speech Week might be to set up a high-profile showdown with the university and counter-protestors so that Yiannopoulos can once again claim that certain voices have been silenced.
If that is what’s going on here, let’s not fall for it. Nothing would please right-wing provocateurs like Yiannopoulos and galvanize their supporters more than being able to present themselves as victims of a liberal or left-wing establishment. Indeed, this type of tactic is not new. There is a long history of white supremacists attempting to subvert American ideals and cast themselves as victims in order to recruit people to their causes. A 2000 paper by sociologist Mitch Berbrier showed, based on an examination of dozens of white supremacist media appearances and publications, that the psychology of victimhood is critical to the movement.
So here’s our message to UC Berkeley officials: Let’s not allow these wolves in free speech clothing to cry foul and claim the mantle of victimhood. If Yiannopoulos, Bannon and Coulter actually want to speak, let them try to defend their bigotry in the face of others who speak for equal justice. Probably, nothing would displease them more.
Christine Sun is the legal and policy director of the ACLU of Northern California and a UC Berkeley alumna.