By Suzanne Nossel
In a season of political polarization and frayed nerves on university campuses, the college appearances of right-wing firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos have become a persistent flashpoint. When Yiannopoulos comes to town, denunciations of hateful speech, vociferous objections to the tyranny of political correctness, and dueling arguments about the place of free speech on campus almost always follow. The latest and most serious melee broke out at the University of California at Berkeley, where a planned appearance by Yiannopoulos triggered not just peaceful protests by students, but violent demonstrations by outside provocateurs that led administration officials to cancel the speaking event due to safety concerns, despite an earlier pledge to ensure that it would go forward despite the outcry.
Given Yiannopoulos’ commitment to spread his message far and wide—and a probable tour to promote a planned book contracted by Simon and Schuster that triggered its own kickup last month—the Yiannopoulos storm is likely to hit a campus near you soon, if it hasn’t already. Moreover, Yiannopoulos is not the only white supremacist seeking to rile up a student audience. The potential for controversial campus speakers to enflame divisions on campus, exacerbate feelings of vulnerability among historically marginalized groups, and give rise to calls to limit open expression is hard to miss. To avoid outcomes that are destructive to the campus learning environment or legitimize encroachments on free speech, all actors on campus should consider carefully their role in dealing with such campus appearances. Responsible students, administrators, and faculty should reflect on how to balance considerations of diversity and inclusion with the imperative of respect for academic freedom and free speech. The short primer below is aimed at specific college constituencies to help them consider their role vis-à-vis Yiannopoulos and his kin:
The Inviters – Invitations to Yiannopoulos and similar speakers are typically issued by college Republicans or similar conservative-leaning student groups. Few would dispute that on campuses where such organizations have broad leeway to invite whomever they want to speak, Yiannopoulos is fair game. That student groups have a clear right to invite Yiannopoulos, however, doesn’t mean they should do so. Before the overture is made, student leaders should carefully consider why they want to invite him. If their goal is truly to bring to campus an edifying and important perspective to help foster understanding and debate, that may be perfectly valid. If their motivation is simply to anger their political antagonists or, worse, to exacerbate the feelings of discrimination and denigration experienced by students of color, women, or the overweight, those impulses should be questioned and resisted. It may be valid to simply want to defend the principle that even those with highly polarizing viewpoints have a right to be heard. But that argument is stronger in cases where the individuals and views being elevated lack access to important platforms and outlets, hardly the case for Yiannopoulos right now. Invitations to controversial speakers should take account of how the presentation is likely to be received and what the collateral consequences may be, particularly for those who may feel the greatest sense of harm as a result. If there are student groups that genuinely believe Yiannopoulos has a valid place in campus discourse, they would do well to consider how the format and presentation of his campus appearance can be shaped to foster serious discussion as opposed to provocation for its own sake.
The Protesters – Just as student groups may have every right to invite Yiannopoulos, so are members of the campus community free to protest his appearance. Op-eds, letters to the editors, demonstrations, posters, chants, picket lines, tweetstorms, teach-ins, and tough questions are all perfectly legitimate protest tactics. Appearances by Yiannopoulos can be galvanizing for those who reject his message, propelling new levels of organization and mobilization to oppose his agenda. Protesters should take every precaution to ensure their demonstrations remain peaceful—violence against property or assaults on individuals are unlawful and make it easier for opponents to dismiss the message of the protests. Threats and intimidation may also cross the line. Protesters should also stop short of efforts to silence the controversial speaker by demanding that the invitation be rescinded, or preventing the appearance from taking place, drowning out or disrupting it. Such measures interfere with free speech rights and deprive peaceful and innocent listeners of the ability to hear the speaker. They also create a campus environment where no one can be certain that their right to speak will be protected. If Milo Yiannopoulos can be shut down, so can left wing speakers. Moreover, calls to block the offensive speech tend to steer the debate away from Yiannopoulos’ views and vitriol and onto discussions of the limits of speech, putting Yiannopoulos’ critics on the defensive.
The Administration – The university administration’s obligation in response to an invitation that will result in hateful but lawful speech being voiced on campus should be two-fold, recalling the Friends of Voltaire’s famous maxim: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” College presidents and their proxies must vociferously and convincingly reject the HATEFUL speech, while also defending the rights of the speaker. When Yiannopoulos came to the University of West Virginia in December and attacked a faculty member by name, President Gordon Gee got it right, allowing the talk to go forward on grounds that “we never want to censor a person’s right to free speech.” But he went on to say that support for free speech "does not mean I, as president, lose my First Amendment right to speak up and condemn what is presented . . . It is one thing to share differing opinions that others may find offensive. It is another to be defamatory and target individuals. I personally condemn the tactic this speaker chose to vindictively attack one of our faculty members." The university should allow offensive speech to be aired, but also repudiate the views conveyed to the extent that they are hostile to campus norms and values. To fail to permit the speech is to betray the university’s role as an open forum for discourse. Yet to neglect to renounce the speech itself is to risk condoning the contemptible and ceding the university’s moral authority as not just a forum for free speech, but also an arbiter of the worth and value of competing ideas. Where significant protests can be anticipated, the university must not only permit the controversial event to go forward, but also take all possible steps to ensure that it is not thwarted. While it is not the role of the university to mount counter-programming, the administration should facilitate student or faculty efforts to do so by making space and security available. If protesters are allowed to disrupt a campus appearance, they deprive both the speaker of his right to be heard and also peaceable students of their right to listen. Universities should engage in active, advance liaison and planning to ensure that both the speaker and the protesters’ rights are upheld.
The Faculty – For faculty, controversial speakers offer an opportunity to engage students in discussions about the role of the university and the imperative of free speech protections to defend all manner of views. Some student activists for racial justice have of late voiced the view that “The First Amendment wasn’t written for me.” They see constitutional protections for free speech as a relic from another time that lacks relevance to their struggles today. They are also reflecting a sense that, at least on some campuses, the protection of free speech has more often been invoked in defense of conservative views expressed on campuses where majority attitudes can be hostile toward them. Particularly at a moment when mass protests are on the rise, students need to be educated about the intent and function of the First Amendment and related protections for speech, so that they can view them as tools for their own use rather than weapons in hostile hands.
Others have obligations too: the local police to assist campus security in preserving the peace and protecting the rights of both speakers and protesters; federal officials – including President Donald Trump – in avoiding baseless threats and accusations of the sort he tweeted out suggesting that Berkeley might lose its federal funding after the Yiannopoulos speech was cancelled. All sides also have a duty to firmly reject violence, the greatest danger to an open marketplace of ideas.
Milo Yiannopoulos has been open about his agenda to provoke, anger, and polarize debates on campus and across society. Campus constituencies can inadvertently play into his hands by overreacting or taking positions that compromise other core principles in the name of silencing him. With adequate planning and foresight, though, Milo Yiannopoulos can take his place as yet another participant in campus discourse, rather than a threat to it.
For more on how campuses can effectively balance the imperatives of diversity and inclusion with uncompromising protections for free speech see PEN America’s Report, And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion and Free Speech at U.S. Universities and the PEN America Principles on Campus Speech.
Suzanne Nossel is Executive Director of PEN America and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.