Milo Yiannopoulis is controversial.
That may be the most "Captain Obvious" statement you read this week. But it’s the "controversial" that makes it important in the battle to protect free speech on America’s college campuses.
According to our research, the vast majority of American universities have few if any speech policies, and even fewer have policies designed to deal with protests, demonstrations, and counter-demonstrations.
As a result, organized and well-funded agitprop professionals and their black-clad foot soldiers who show up on cue have a field day on American campuses. It’s pure predatory behavior, like that of an armed killer targeting a public school because posted signs boast "Gun-Free Zone." There is simply no protocol for stopping the carnage that follows, and they know it.
Milo was scheduled to speak at the University of California at Berkeley in January at the invitation of the Berkeley College Republicans, a registered campus organization. The mayhem that followed, led in part by a group called Refuse Fascism, which is in turn funded by the George Soros-backed Alliance for Global Justice, included vivid images of physical assault, property destruction, and fires set by what UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks described as "more than 100 armed individuals clad all in black who utilized paramilitary tactics to engage in violent, destructive behavior designed to shut the event down."
While UC Berkeley, the self-proclaimed home of the Free Speech Movement, initially refused to cancel the event, the "shut down" was ordered when it became clear the university was entirely ill-prepared to deal with both peaceful protestors and the violent agitators in a way that adequately protected the speaker, his supporters, and the protestors themselves.
But new allies have joined the call for protecting divergent viewpoint speech on campuses. Civil libertarians, Jewish groups, and education advocates view the Milo shutdown and violence that followed as the same threat facing a wide array of public expression on campuses. As a result, 47 groups signed a letter to UC administrators to implement the "Regents’ Principles Against Intolerance" adopted by the UC Board of Regents in 2016 in the wake of increased anti-Semitic activity on UC campuses.
Last week, UC Santa Cruz lecturer and anti-Semitism watchdog AMCHA Initiative’s director, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, put it bluntly: "In the current climate of increasing polarization and rising levels of hatred and intolerance across our nation and particularly on our college campuses, as we saw last week when violence broke out at UC Berkeley, implementing policies that encourage tolerance among our nation’s youth and protect the right to free speech on campus, even speech we find hateful and offensive, couldn’t be more important."
Months earlier, Milo’s appearance at DePaul University was likewise shut down by angry agitators. DePaul President Reverend Dennis Holtschneider told students and faculty the protestors were "wrong" to shut down Yiannopoulos, and that he was "ashamed for DePaul University" and apologized to the DePaul College Republicans, who invited Milo.
In the following weeks, organized calls for Holtschneider’s ouster – as well as threats of renewed violence – forced his resignation. Let’s be clear: he didn’t like Milo. In his own words, he and Milo "share very few opinions." Holtschneider was DePaul’s liberal warrior, decrying perceived social ills like the wage gap for women, white male privilege, and banning the College Republicans from posting "Unborn Lives Matter" signs on campus – despite "Black Lives Matter" signs hanging in the university’s administrative office windows.
But there’s this pesky thing called free speech. It’s protected. And in no place more than American college campuses is the notion of "the open marketplace of ideas" so profoundly relevant. Holtschneider understood this.
Another liberal lion, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, concurred in one of the most profound free speech cases, Whitney v. California: "Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, [the Founders] eschewed silence coerced by law — the argument of force in its worst form. [T]hey amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed . . . the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."
American universities play host to a complex web of rights and responsibilities unlike any other. Campuses are places where people live, study, gather, and play. Each of these situations carries with them different constitutional and legal guideposts.
Until there is a widespread understanding of the need for constitutionally defensible and enforceable speech policies on America’s college campuses, there will be more violence and, inevitably, free speech lawsuits seeking the protection of the Constitution.
Todd Young serves as Executive Director for Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF), an Atlanta-based national constitutional public interest law firm founded in 1976. In his role at SLF, he has worked closely in an advisory capacity with former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III, former Independent Counsel Judge Kenneth Starr, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and various members of Congress and state governors and attorneys general. To read more of his reports — Go Here Now.
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