Milo Yiannopoulos has every intention to return to Berkeley in the coming months and give the speech he planned to deliver Feb. 1, which was canceled by UCPD amid the violence and fiery protests that were sparked by his arrival. This poses a question for the campus community — should he be able to return?
UC Berkeley’s long history is not only closely intertwined with the freedom of speech, but is synonymous with it. The campus was home to the Free Speech Movement in 1964 which birthed the rise of student activism that still ripples throughout college campuses today.
Freedom of speech is defined as the right to express opinions without censorship or restraint. It is under this pretence that Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and the campus administration made the decision to let Yiannopoulos speak, despite severe backlash.
“The First Amendment is unequivocal in its almost unfettered protection of speech with which many might disagree,” said Dirks in an Op-Ed to the Daily Cal. “We cannot support free speech selectively, even as we must understand that the commitment to justice, to free inquiry, to truth, is the very foundation of what we hold dear as the University of California.”
However, Yiannopoulos’ rhetoric falls under a very specific category — hate speech. He unashamedly attacks individuals and groups on the basis of attributes such as gender, religion, race, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.
“Every time he comes to a campus, it’s an attack on immigrants, Muslims and trans students to name a few,” said BAMN national organizer Yvette Felarca. “Hate speech is not free speech. If Milo said his views out loud in front of other people, he would create a hostile environment.”
In December, Yiannopoulos openly mocked a transgender student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee during a speech there, while prominently displaying her name and photograph on screen. Is behaviour such as personal attacks on individuals also protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment?
There are few categories of speech that are unprotected by the First Amendment, one of which is “fighting words” — words which would likely make the person whom they are addressed commit an act of violence. This category has spawned much confusion as to what actually falls under the definition.
The original fighting words doctrine was born out of Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire (1942), where it was found that two types of speech are designated as fighting words and therefore not protected — “words that by their very utterance inflict injury” and “speech that incites an immediate breach of the peace.”
However, in Cohen v. California (1971), the Court ruled that offensive language does not constitute fighting words. Even pronouncements such as “we’ll take the fucking street later” are still protected, as reaffirmed in Hess v. Indiana (1973). So despite the picket signs indicating otherwise, hate speech actually is free speech.
But is the campus administration’s decision to allow Yiannopoulos speak really about free speech, or is allowing him to speak violating the campus’ duty to create a safe and inclusive environment for all students — free from harassment or intimidation?
“Milo was invited to a public institution full of dreamers, undocumented students, LGBTQ communities, Muslims — a hugely diverse range of people,” said Jolene Sweitzer, a founding member of Berkeley Students for Social Change. “Inviting him to speak at this public institution does not fall under the realm of what is considered to be inclusive academic discourse.”
But isn’t prohibiting a student group — in this instance, Berkeley College Republicans — from inviting a speaker to campus directly violating the campus’ duty to promote inclusive academic discourse? To engage in prior restraint of speech, the campus would be directing the discourse in favor of some student groups over others.
The campus has made clear that Yiannopoulos’ inflaming rhetoric and provocations were in direct opposition to the basic principles and values of UC Berkeley. But this does not mean that there is not a space for him on campus to express these hateful and bigoted views. As the home to the very movement that pushed to allow diverse beliefs and opinions — no matter how radical — to have a place on campuses, we should know this.
With that, let’s recall the words Mario Savio uttered on the steps of Sproul Hall in 1964: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you sick at heart … you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
Let’s protest everything that Milo stands for — sexism, bigotry, hate, violence, Breitbart, Trumpism and all that entails. But, to continue in the words of Savio, “that doesn’t mean that you have to break anything. One thousand people sitting down some place, not letting anybody by, not letting anything happen, can stop any machine, including this machine!” Including Yiannopoulos, and including Trump.
If he comes back — and he has every intention of doing so — let’s engage in the discourse, let’s protest the hatred, but let’s do it peacefully. We can do it the right way because despite popular belief, freedom of speech is not dead here at UC Berkeley.
Contact Cassie Ippaso at at [email protected].
A previous version of this article misspelled Mario Savio’s name.