Last week, noted troll Milo Yiannopoulous was scheduled to speak at U.C. Berkeley, the home of our favorite hippie arch rivals and noted free speech enthusiasts across the bay. To the surprise of absolutely no one, people turned out — not to hear Milo speak, but to protest the extension of a public platform to a deliciously punchable platinum-haired douche. This protest was then hijacked by one of the many radical anarchist groups that have made the Bay Area their home since America’s Golden Age of Terrorism.
As predictable as the protests against Milo was the outrage spewed against the protestors from left, right and center. Most articles condemning their actions structured their argument along the following lines: central to liberalism is protection of individual liberty, including freedom of speech; freedom of speech must necessarily include protection for speech that is not palatable or agreeable to the majority (or minority); Milo, however unpleasant or unpalatable his opinions might be, must therefore be accorded the same free speech protections as anyone else speaking at a college campus, i.e., he ought to be granted a platform to express his views and that violent action in protest is a form of censorship that ought not to be tolerated.
The typical American liberal response to this, as summed up by my friend and fellow columnist Nick Pether, is that a constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech is strictly a right to express your views without the threat of physical or material violence, or censorship on the part of the state. Expressions of dissent towards controversial viewpoints, including termination of employment, withdrawal of speaking invitations, internet petitions and peaceful protest or civil disobedience, are also forms of protected speech. Therefore, protecting the espouser of a controversial viewpoint from people actively expressing their displeasure through non-violent means infringes on the free speech rights of those dissenting. Under this framework, had the protesters at Berkeley been completely non-violent, they would be in the clear.
Nick goes on to argue that this free speech framework is dangerous because of its framing of free speech as a negative right, i.e. a protection against violence or deprivation. This, he goes on to say, is a typically libertarian or right-wing mindset, which tends to prioritize protection of what an individual already has, and in doing so, reinforces existing social inequities and injustices. Contrast this with what Nick calls positive rights, i.e. rights to proactively access and benefit from something — healthcare, education, a social safety net, etc. The latter viewpoint intends to empower the underprivileged, improve their status within society and provide support to artists, activists and others who typically might not succeed in the free-market-driven society that we live in. Framing free speech as a negative right therefore opens up the field to an extremely slippery slope of arguments advancing regressive goals, Nick concludes — including slashing public funding of universities for teaching leftist material, defunding of abortion providers like Planned Parenthood and discriminating against LGBTQ individuals on the grounds of religious freedom. After all, if U.C. Berkeley can tell Milo to shove it, then why can’t conservatives, who currently control 25 state governments and the federal government, decide to defund universities for spending resources on the arts and identity politics?
The implication, of course, is that maybe woke progressives on university campuses shouldn’t try to shut down a right-wing provocateur like Milo because the cackling supervillains on the right will in turn try to shut them down by withdrawing funding or declaring criticism of police a hate crime. This is a major cause for concern, specifically given the right’s attempts to censor and undermine academic freedom recently.
However, there are three things that critics of college protestors constantly seem to get wrong. The first is that all speech of conservative figures like Milo is protected speech. While this is true for issues that are implicitly part of public debate (e.g. gay marriage, abortion rights, etc.), there is a rich history of exceptions to free speech within liberal democracy that most reasonable people would agree to. These include incitement, libel and provocation or fighting words. Key to all of these exceptions is a reasonable expectation of violent or harmful outcomes from the speech as well as the personal targeting of individuals. So when Milo goes on stage and calls people ‘retards’ and worse, or publicly humiliates a trans woman for no good reason, then it is nearly impossible to characterize what he says as protected speech — liberally insulting people for shits and giggles isn’t exactly a conservative viewpoint. This is further compounded by the fact that Milo himself admits that this behavior is done entirely to provoke and incite protesters, giving credence under the Fighting Words doctrine to those who want to either shut him down or protest him. It’s not so much about stopping the free flow of ideas as much as it is about calling out a bully.
The second thing that liberal critics of college leftists get wrong is that conservatives are somehow marginalized and wield little influence in the world, implying that colleges should therefore go out of their way to accommodate viewpoints that are not typically liberal, even idiotic ones like climate change denial. The truth is that Republicans now dominate U.S. politics, business and wealth. Sure, while encased in the bubbles of academia and urban America, it might be easy to think that progressivism has won and that our main task at hand is to keep the excesses of the left in check. Many of us on campus railed against the divest from Palestine movement for being too extreme, while conveniently forgetting about the many ways in which legitimate criticism of Israel has been thrown aside wholesale as anti-Semitism.
More often than not civil disobedience or artistic expression is the only way for liberals, particularly those from marginalized communities, to express their dissent against the more destructive ideas coming from the right. If free speech is supposed to be a positive right, then platforms that enable speech have an obligation to help prop up the voices of those who typically have been excluded from the main channels of expression — and those tend to be the very people protesting Milo. At the end of the day, Milo/Tomi Lahren/insert troll here still get to spew vitriol on Breitbart and the Blaze and make appearances on the Daily Show, while a trans student activist has to drop out of college because Milo publicly humiliated her.
Finally, there is this notion that students on the left are simply “snowflakes” that do not want to engage with ideas or people that make them uncomfortable. Evidence for this is given by the withdrawal of several high-profile commencement speakers from universities, usually after social media campaigns highlighting their past history with homophobia, neoliberal economics or wars of questionable legality. Further evidence is also compounded by concepts such as trigger warnings, which critics deride as methods of protecting students from uncomfortable or controversial ideas.
This is a load of hokum. Protests at colleges are probably older than your parents. The difference was that academics and politicians didn’t run away because a few not-fully-formed adults told them that their career had promoted global oppression. People, including leftists, have disagreed and railed against members of the establishment for decades. One would expect noted academics like Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde not to bow down to a few hundred anonymous signatures on the internet. Indeed, even those Smith college students who protested the choice of Lagarde as a commencement speaker were dismayed by her decision to withdraw, since it robbed them off the chance to raise awareness about the perceived harms of neoliberal economics.
Similarly, trigger warnings are nothing new — we just used to say things like ‘parental advisory’, ‘rated R’ or ‘viewer discretion advised.’ The reason these labels were attached to music and movies was because they contained material that people might find shocking or alarming — such as gratuitous violence. When professors freely choose to warn students about content that might be graphic as part of their course material, it’s not because they think students are too fragile to study colonialism — it’s mainly because we live in a society where we are more mindful of trauma and mental health issues, whether they are faced by survivors of rape, war veterans, or bystanders of terrorist attacks.
If free speech is to be a positive right, then it ought to serve its end goal of bringing in marginalized and non-mainstream voices. But let’s put the blame where it ought to lie, and not at the feet of students who are rightfully angry about a platinum-blonde creep doxxing their classmates.
Contact Arnav Mariwala at arnavm ‘at’ stanford.edu.