Free speech is not the same as hate speech
It’s time to stop and think. Because people are getting hurt, and if it continues this way, more are going to get hurt, and perhaps even killed. On both sides.
Friday, I got an email from a reader and Trump supporter in St. John’s, which read, “Sir: Can we expect a column from you about preserving free speech in light of the leftist brutes who shut down a speaker at the noted University by using horrible violence? Well why not? Cause you can’t blame it on Trump supporters no doubt.”
The writer makes a good point: armed protesters did US$100,000 damage at the University of California at Berkeley as they blocked a speech by Breitbart News senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos is an extreme right-wing speaker whose appearances regularly generate protests.
The identity of the protesters hasn’t been made clear, though that hasn’t stopped repercussions going right straight to the top, with U.S. President Donald Trump musing on Twitter about stopping federal funding to Berkley, writing: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” (UC Berkeley, of course, wasn’t “practicing violence” — it was some of the protesters at the event who were the violent ones. But that’s beside the point.)
Does such violence affect rights to free expression?
Of course it does. It’s a difficult balance. Before the Berkeley talk, faculty had written to the university’s chancellor, saying, in part, “Although we object strenuously to Yiannopoulos’s views — he advocates white supremacy, transphobia and misogyny — it is rather his harmful conduct to which we call attention in asking for the cancellation of this event.” They continued: “Yiannopoulos’ deplorable views pass from protected free speech to incitement, harassment and defamation once they publicly target individuals in his audience or on campus, creating conditions for concrete harm and actually harming students through defamatory and harassing actions. Such actions are protected neither by free speech nor by academic freedom. For this reason, the university should not provide a platform for such harassment.”
They also added: “We understand that if a decision to cancel were based on the political viewpoints he holds, we ourselves could become subject to censorship under other circumstances. We support robust debate, but we cannot abide by harassment, slander, defamation and hate speech.”
A spokesman for the university replied, “our constitution does not permit the university to engage in prior restraint of a speaker out of fear he might engage in even hateful verbal attacks.”
Yes, violence did impede free speech. But it’s not the only violence connected to Yiannopoulos. At a Yiannopoulos speech at the University of Washington on Jan. 20, a protester was shot by a Yiannopoulos supporter.
It’s pretty easy to see where the alleged shooter’s allegiances lie. This is from the Seattle Times: “‘Hey Milo,’ the 29-yearold former UW student posted to Yiannopoulos’ Facebook page at 7:24 p.m. ‘im outside in line to your UW event. I got sucker punched (he was a bit limp wristed) and someone jacked my #MAGA hat,’ he said, referring to the ubiquitous red and white ‘Make America Great Again’ caps worn by supporters of President Trump. ‘(Any way) for me to get a replacement signed by you?’ the man asked.”
Here’s another interesting comparator: while Trump muses about retribution against an entire university, the man shot in Seattle doesn’t even want the shooter to face criminal charges. He issues a statement through his lawyer: “My client wishes to express his empathy for the person who shot him. He hopes to engage in constructive dialogue with that person, in order to de-escalate and provide a community-based response to this violence.”
There are high roads, and there are low roads.
But far too many roads are leading to violence.