Campus & community, Events at Berkeley

Free speech? Hate speech? Or both?

Whether you lean pro, con or somewhere in-between, the debate over provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos has special resonance at Berkeley, where the Free Speech Movement was born in 1964.

Alarmed by the announcement of a scheduled campus appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos, the right-wing provocateur who has built a lucrative brand on inflammatory speech, a group of UC Berkeley faculty wrote Chancellor Nicholas Dirks in early January to urge him to call it off.

Demonstrator at UC Davis

A demonstrator in the crowd at UC Davis, where Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak in mid-January

“Although we object strenuously to Yiannopoulos’s views — he advocates white supremacy, transphobia and misogyny — it is rather his harmful conduct to which we call attention in asking for the cancellation of this event,” read the first of two letters from faculty members. The letters were eventually signed by more than 100 Berkeley faculty.

As one example of what they termed “incitement, harassment and defamation,” the signers cited a December event at the University of Milwaukee where Yiannopoulos “spoke in his public lecture about a transgender student at the university in derogatory ways, going so far as to project a picture of this student during his lecture, one that was simultaneously broadcast on the Breitbart website.”

“Such actions,” they concluded, “are protected neither by free speech nor by academic freedom. For this reason, the university should not provide a platform for such harassment.”

Nils Gilman, associate chancellor and Dirks’ chief of staff, replied with the administration’s position.

“While we realize (and regret) that the presence of certain speakers is very likely to upset some members of our campus community,” Gilman wrote, “the U.S. Constitution, and thus university policy, prevent campus administration from barring invited speakers from campus based on the viewpoints those speakers may express… 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.”

Whether you lean pro, con or somewhere in-between, such questions have special resonance at UC Berkeley, where the Free Speech Movement was born in 1964. A group of FSM veterans has come out in favor of Yiannopoulos’s right to speak, and the Facebook page of the Berkeley College Republicans — the campus group sponsoring his appearance — touts what it calls “the new free speech movement.”

Yiannopolous, a British, avowedly gay crusader against “political correctness,” regularly targets Muslims, immigrants, women, liberals and others perceived to be enemies of the “alt-right” — a formerly fringe movement associated with white supremacy and Stephen Bannon, a key strategist for Donald Trump — with troll-like rhetoric tailored to outrage, antagonize and offend.

He was permanently banned from Twitter for his part in a racist campaign of abuse toward actress Leslie Jones.

Some of his campus events have been canceled — college Republicans at UC Davis recently scrubbed his talk in the face of protests and security concerns — and one protester was shot by a supporter when Yiannopoulos spoke at the University of Washington.

His sold-out event at UC Berkeley is set for Wednesday, Feb. 1, at 8 p.m. in the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union’s Pauley Ballroom.

In an op-ed in the Daily Cal, a dozen Free Speech Movement veterans — including Lynne Hollander Savio, Mario’s widow — labeled Yiannopoulos “a bigot,” but urged students opposed to his views to express their opposition “nonviolently, in ways that do not prevent such speakers from making or completing their remarks.”

“His modus operandi,” they wrote, “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. “

With that in mind, they argued, “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.”

Pieter Sittler, an officer with Berkeley College Republicans, explained via email that the group invited Yiannopoulos “because we believe there exists a dearth of intellectual diversity on this campus,” adding that “conservative thought is actively repressed.”

By inviting Yiannopoulos,” Sittler said, “BCR is simply holding true to Berkeley’s motto, Fiat Lux, thus enlightening our peers to thought that deviates from the liberal status quo. We acknowledge that Milo is controversial, but he voraciously defends speech on campus and is an important voice to include in the broader political dialogue.”

And Dirks, in a message to the campus community last week, said the administration had “clearly communicated to the BCR that we regard Yiannopoulos’s act as at odds with the values of this campus,” and had “emphasized to them that with their autonomy and independence comes a moral responsibility for the consequences of their words, actions, events and invitations – and those of their guest.”

Nonetheless, he reiterated the legal basis for the decision to let the event proceed, and quoted UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman, who wrote that universities “support free speech and condemn censorship for two reasons — to ensure that positive, helpful, illuminating messages can circulate widely, and to expose hateful or dangerous ideas that, if never engaged or rebutted, would gain traction in the darker corners of our society. Hate speech is like mold: Its enemies are bright light and fresh air.”

“This admonition,” added Dirks, “may be more important in our current political moment than ever.”