The University of New Mexico’s handling of a protest of the Jan. 27 speech by firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos, a provocateur and conservative tech writer for Breitbart News, gets an “A.” Some UNM faculty, staff and students, however, get an “F.”
So does the University of California at Berkeley.
Yiannopoulos, who is gay, is speaking to full houses at university campuses as part of his obnoxiously named “Dangerous Faggot Tour.” His stock-in-trade is profanity-laced diatribes about left-wing activists who decry “hate speech,” Trump’s planned U.S.-Mexican border wall, actions to limit immigrants, especially those from predominantly Muslim countries, and lewd jokes.
Let’s be clear. Allowing him to speak doesn’t mean you like him. It means you understand the basic principles of the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights.
UNM earned its high grade because it made it possible for Yiannopoulos to give his speech, despite about 250 protesters who were kept in check by law enforcement.
While his sponsor, UNM College Republicans, were originally required to pay $3,400 in extra security costs – a move event organizers called a “free-speech fee” – acting president Chaouki Abdallah suspended the fee and said UNM is reviewing its policy on such costs and could eventually seek reimbursement for the added security. That’s a smart move that shows the university is committed to free speech and an open exchange of ideas – even those many people may find abhorrent.
In contrast, UC Berkeley flunks for canceling Yiannopoulos’ talk. Protests there turned violent and ended up with most of that university on lockdown. Yiannopoulos wrote on his Facebook page that “violent left-wing protesters” had broken into a building’s ground floor, ripped down barricades and threw rocks. About two weeks ago, protesters also shut down a Yiannopoulos appearance at UC Davis.
Joining Berkeley in elitist small-mindedness are hundreds of UNM faculty, staff and students, who have signed a letter decrying Abdallah’s decision. They essentially say the university should ban any speech they don’t agree with or that might lead to violence.
That’s basically allowing thugs to decide who gets to talk and who doesn’t by resorting to violence or the threat of violence.
These incidents and others across the country have prompted debates about free speech, what constitutes “hate speech,” and how universities, where free speech is generally considered a hallowed right, should handle controversial speakers and topics. They are important conversations that need to happen to keep the First Amendment strong and relevant.
So while people of various political persuasions might find Yiannopoulos’ positions reprehensible – his Breitbart articles include “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews” and “Why Equality and Diversity Departments Should Only Hire Rich, Straight White Men” – he does have a right to voice them. Just as groups like Refuse Fascism have the right to say that Yiannopoulos is spewing hate speech.
But canceling speeches, charging disproportionate fees and encouraging protesters to shut events down is anti-First Amendment – and arguably more fascist than anything coming out of Yiannopoulos’ mouth.
The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” That includes the right to burn a flag, which the president has suggested might net the burner the loss of citizenship or jail time. So in a real sense, the people who signed the UNM letter and Donald Trump are on the same page when it comes to speech: Punish and stifle those with whom you disagree.
In this country, there is a right to speak, voice opinions and to report the many sides of news and opinion – and for Yiannopoulos, Breitbart News, BuzzFeed, CNN, Refuse Fascism and others to peacefully voice their opinions while respecting the rights of the others to do the same.
That’s how democracy works in America – and how it worked last week at UNM.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.