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.