The cancellation Wednesday of a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley was, according to a university spokesman, “not a proud night for this campus, the home of the free speech movement.”
That’s putting it mildly. Even if the cancellation was justified by concerns about public safety after an outbreak of violence and property destruction, the fact that Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking to a willing audience of campus Republicans should make supporters of free speech shiver.
In a characteristically knee-jerk reaction to Wednesday’s events, President Trump tweeted: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
That would be a ludicrous overreaction even if it were true that the university had been on the wrong side of the issue. But actually, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks had steadfastly defended the right of the Republicans to invite Yiannopoulos to speak, rejecting a request by a group of professors that the Breitbart News writer’s appearance be canceled because he engaged in “hate speech” and, based on his appearance at another university, might harass or belittle individual students.
In responding to the professors, the chancellor’s office pointed out — correctly and courageously — that “the courts have made it very clear that there is no general exception to 1st Amendment protection for ‘hate’ speech or speech that is deemed to be discriminatory. Our Constitution does not permit the university to engage in prior restraint of a speaker out of fear that he might engage in even hateful verbal attacks.”
The university insists that it made elaborate preparations for protests. It canceled the speech only after what it called an “unprecedented” invasion of the campus by “more than 100 armed individuals clad all in black” who engaged in violent, destructive behavior. They hurled metal barricades, threw Molotov cocktails and smashed windows at the student union.
In his own self-serving response, Yiannopoulos wrote on Facebook: “One thing we do know for sure: the Left is absolutely terrified of free speech and will do literally anything to shut it down.” That’s a gross generalization: Many of Yiannopoulos’ critics object to his outrageous statements — such as his claim that feminism is a “cancer” — but wouldn’t deny his right to express them. It’s also true that one can protest at a speaker’s appearance without trying to shout him down.
Yet it’s also true that, on colleges campuses and elsewhere, some “progressive” voices do call for the stifling of speech they don’t approve of. A leaflet circulated at the Berkeley protest said Yiannopoulos has “no right to speak at Cal or anywhere else” because he’s a “tool of Trump’s possessive fascist government."
This is just the latest variation on the age-old argument of the censor that “error has no rights,” or, put another way, that one only has a right to free speech if one is speaking the “truth.” It’s an insidious notion that needs to be opposed in every generation.
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