Hate Speech vs. Free Speech: The Future Of The Public Sphere In The Age Of Trump

The UC Berkeley administration should cancel Milo Yiannopoulos’s speaking engagement.

Milo Yiannopoulos is slated to pay a visit to UC Berkeley on February 1st, 2017.

Yiannopoulos is a self-proclaimed member of the alt-right, a loosely affiliated group mobilized largely through internet platforms with far-right ideologies tied to white nationalism, Islamophobia, anti-feminism, homophobia, transphobia, and anti-Semitism.

The name of his speaking tour—“The Dangerous Faggot Tour”—which travels through thirteen U.S. college campuses over the course of three months, highlights a particular quality of the alt-right that distinguishes it from its other conservative predecessors: that is, its co-opting of LGBT rights in the service of white nationalism.

As one of the over one million followers he has on his Facebook page rightly noted, “[He is] the living embodiment of the left’s worse nightmare. They call him a homophobe, but he’s gay. A xenophobe, but he’s foreign. A racist, but he prefers black men.”

Yiannopoulos repeatedly uses these identities—as a white, foreign-born, gay man—to dismiss any claims that pin him as problematic. And yet, he has leveraged the recent gains around transgender rights in the United States to argue that such gains are a “distraction” from the rights of white gay men.

He has also called for the incitement of physical violence against transgender women, has named Black Lives Matter, a group that calls attention to the disproportionate number of Black Americans killed by law enforcement, a “terrorist organization,” and has called feminism a “cancer” that must be obliterated.

The UC Berkeley administration should cancel Yiannopoulos’s speaking engagement because the exhortation to violence in many of his public statements—which he is sure to repeat during his speaking engagement—is an exception to the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, and his presence on campus creates an environment of physical unsafety for many members of the community that interferes with their ability, and indeed right, to learn and work free from such harassment.

In addition, one need only point to the spike in hate crimes that have occurred in Berkeley and across the country in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to argue that Yiannopoulos’s presence on campus would increase the incidence of such hate crimes severalfold.

Last week, a group of UC Berkeley students and student workers contacted the university administration to express concern that Yiannopoulos’s rhetoric jeopardizes the physical and mental safety of a large portion of its campus population, many of whom belong to marginalized groups that have been made especially vulnerable by the recent election of Donald Trump.

The administration, however, chief among them Assistant Vice Chancellor Dan Mogulof, responded by stating that university policy “explicitly prevents the administration from barring invited speakers from campus based on viewpoints those speakers may express.”

Mogulof’s predictable and tired invocation of the First Amendment highlights the way in which the university’s commitment to so-called “free speech” is applied only on a selective, case-by-case basis—in terms that are contingent upon how said speech affects the financial backing of the university.

Take, for example, the administration’s recent attempt to shut down a student-led course on the history of Palestine after it decided the content “did not meet academic standards.” Curiously, the university did not view this decision to shut down the course as a violation of free speech.

The ban on the Palestine course was only lifted after a large number of faculty and students signed a petition to retract the ban.

One presumes that the UC system’s investment in the state of Israel, as well as the large numbers of Israeli donors to the university, trumped its alleged commitment to the “free and open discussion of ideas” that they say they must legally adhere to.

Those who decry the censorship of any type of speech—including hate speech—in the public sphere increasingly resort to the logic of free market capitalism, in which the speaker who already wields the most power and influence, and thus speaks loudest, is heard.

However, they forget that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has exceptions.

Those are: incitement to violence, defamation, fraud, obscenity, child pornography, fighting words, and threats. As the Supreme Court held in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the government may forbid “incitement”—speech “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and “likely to incite or produce such action.”

Though the university is unlikely to cancel Yiannapoulos’s speaking engagement on these grounds, it should remember that its chief purpose as a public institution is to provide an equitable place of learning where all students, particularly those marginalized by race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and ability, have the right to learn and work in a space free of harassment and intimidation.

Yiannapoulos’s visit is an explicit violation of that purpose.

In the wake of the Trump election just a few weeks ago, president of the UC system Janet Napolitano issued a state-wide commitment to “supporting all members of our community and adhering to UC’s principles against intolerance.”

The University of California should stand by this commitment and refrain from providing Milo Yiannopoulos and others like him with a platform to amplify the rhetoric of white supremacy and bigoted hatred that has been spreading throughout the United States since November 9th.

It should recognize that a robust public sphere depends upon fundamental rights of respect and inclusion for all, and that the active promotion of hostility for virtually every group of people except white men does not allow for such a public sphere to exist.