Freedom of speech cannot be selective
Setting foot on the UC Berkeley campus last Wednesday, far-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos was greeted with a deluge of anger and protests, both peaceful and violent. Yiannopoulos, an editor for Breitbart News, had been booked to speak by the Berkeley College Republicans but was rushed from campus after fires were lit and glass shattered over his presence. Having risen to recent notoriety over his Twitter attacks against Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones, Yiannopoulos is reviled for his outlandish racism and misogyny. In the wake of Yiannopoulos’ failed attempt to speak at UC Berkeley, President Donald Trump tweeted out a condemnation of actions he blamed on the school administration for preventing Yiannopoulos from exercising his freedom of speech.
And yet, there is a distinct difference between censoring Yiannopoulos and stating emphatically, with peaceful protest, that the students of UC Berkeley do not condone giving a platform to a man who edits Breitbart News, who writes articles titled “Here’s Why There Ought to be a Cap on Women Studying Science and Maths,” who launched racist and sexist attacks on Jones and desperately utilizes pomp and provocation to create outrage and attract attention. There is a difference between not wanting a man like that on campus and silencing that man, because silencing is an extreme stance to take on what happened. Yiannopoulos will go home and still be an editor for Breitbart. He will still retain a massive following, even without his Twitter account or a speech at UC Berkeley.
It needs to be recognized that the university gave its full support to the group that booked Yiannopoulos. And so it was not the administration that barred Yiannopoulos from speaking, not even many of the peaceful student activists. It was a violent group of individuals who lit fires and sprayed anarchy symbols on school buildings, and that degree of action is intolerable even against intolerable people. But that didn’t stop Trump from rushing to Twitter. “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” he tweeted at 3:12 a.m.
The disaccord in his statement was evident. For a president to not understand this, or worse, to know it and still not care, is horrifying. Read between the lines of what Trump is playfully threatening, and one will see the double-edged sword. UC Berkeley has long been a bedrock of liberal college activism, and moreover, as a university, promotes research and progress in the fields of science and math. Universities are hotbeds for intellectual and political discourse, and for the president to cut off federal support — is that not silencing in its own nature, of a more devastating sort?
It is difficult to pin this on Yiannopoulos, because he gives off the impression of someone who thrives on outrage and disaccord. But as for Trump and his administration, what they are asking for is not peaceful protest — they want no protest at all. They want to be able to say what they want to applause and ovation, and that is not how the country works. If conservatives are willing to point at political correctness as an impediment to freedom of speech and willing to hold freedom of speech above the livelihoods of marginalized citizens and immigrants, then they also need to recognize the other side of the equation. Say what you want, but understand that others will disagree, especially if your words dehumanize them and the people they love. That is how democracy works.
Perhaps if conservatives were as concerned with freedom of speech as they claim to be, they should protect the press from what is surely a presidential war being waged on the media. If free speech were as paramount and American as conservatives obsess over, then they must focus on the disregard for truth by the government’s executive branch. Focus on the fact that the president labeled the media “the opposition party” and that the press secretary spouts easily-detected lies from the White House podium.
It is a disturbing and transparent tactic of the oppressor to take the accusations lobbed at them and turn them against the oppressed and those who fight for truth. It’s the same mentality Trump uses when he calls CNN “fake news” before taking a question from Breitbart, when he reprimands Berkeley for withholding Yiannopoulos’ freedom of speech but holds conferences with prominent journalists accusing them of sullying his image. The truth is not contingent to the First Amendment, and yet the men in charge of the country are currently using that very American value selectively to spread lies and create fear. They are dirtying the Constitution in the name of democracy, and to do all this while pretending to protect the voice of a known bigot is absurd.