Permission to Speak Freely?


Last Wednesday, Brietbart editor and alt-right agitator Milo Yiannopoulos had an appearance at UC Berkeley cancelled because he succeeded at the second half of his job. Students, understandably agitated in light of his prior comments and particularly those regarding a transgender college student, held peaceful protests; about 150 also-agitated, university-unaffiliated individuals then engaged in highly-destructive and violent behaviors on and near the Berkeley campus. Now, it seems that the agitation has passed to Yiannopoulos’s ideological allies.

President Trump, never one to stay above the fray, promptly Tweeted: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” The incident is being framed in the context of a larger debate on campus free speech regarding whether universities are responsible for furnishing a platform for troubling speakers, or for furnishing free speech zones, safe spaces, and trigger warnings to students.

Each of these issues presents its own set of challenges and complexities, as does the Trump administration’s free speech hypocrisy, but they will not be addressed here. Why? Free speech was not in question. When Berkeley College Republicans decided to invite Yiannopolous, the university was ready to give them a venue, as per policy. Sure, they required that the group pay for security itself, but only because they had chosen to invite someone whose presence on campus required personal protection; further, the fee was refunded because the event never happened.

The event was cancelled exclusively because of safety concerns, and an explicit commitment to free speech outlined by university administrators. If a hurricane had hit Northern California, the situation would have been much the same, and the ‘speech defenders’ would have had little to say.

There is every indication that the university would be amenable to rescheduling the event, but they have no free-speech duty to do so. The school made a good faith effort to help a campus group host their desired speaker; it is not their fault the plan fell through, when the group chose a speaker whose presence incited violence, as long as identical courtesies (or lack thereof) would have been extended to a club and speaker of different political leanings. Past that, the self-described “super villain” and his college cohort were free to bring a soapbox and commandeer a corner of the quad; that certainly sounds like free speech. It is odd that conservatives accuse other college students of being snowflakes liable to melt in light of dissenting opinions, and yet they were the ones who could not tolerate holding the event in the hot California sun.

Free speech is entirely independent of having been invited; that’s sponsored speech. To equate the two is to confound the terms of the debate. Those who fear that free speech is under threat need only stop asking for permission. Go out, speak, and see that no arrest follows. In the meantime, stop crying wolf; it compromises credibility.

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