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Free Speech Suffers Again

Yesterday, at UC Davis, a public university, both Milo Yiannopoulos, the controversial free-speech and anti-feminist advocate and Martin Shkreli, the infamous entrepreneur and former pharmaceutical CEO, were prevented from speaking on campus by student protests, which the university deemed might have resulted in violence if the speeches had gone as scheduled. Students carried signs saying “Hate Speech is Not Free Speech” and “Racists are not Welcome Here.” Both individuals have been targeted by similar protests in the past. Yiannopoulos, in particular, has been the subject of protests, bomb threats, suspicious items sent via the mail and physical assault on stage because of his positions on feminism, Jewishness, political correctness in general, and gay rights, despite the fact that he is both Jewish and gay. He is also well-known for having been kicked off Twitter for allegedly inciting racist comments and actions after having posted a series of derogatory tweets directed at Black actress and comedian Leslie Jones. Shkreli, who is known because of increasing the price of a drug by 5000%, is under indictment for securities fraud. The College Republicans invited both to the UC Davis Campus.

Clearly, many UC Davis students reject the public positions and actions of both Yiannopoulos and Shkreli. Others, whether they reject those positions or not, wanted to hear both men speak. The protesters made their point clear, but those who wanted to listen were denied their opportunity to do so. Protesters claimed that neither speaker represents the kinds of views that should be allowed on a college campus. The university administration disagreed and the interim Chancellor said, “"Our community is founded on principles of respect for all views, even those that we personally find repellent. As I have stated repeatedly, a university is at its best when it listens to and critically engages opposing views, especially ones that many of us find upsetting or even offensive."

The issue of free speech on campus has become a notorious one in recent years. Record numbers of speakers have either been “disinvited” from speaking or prevented by protesters from speaking. By far the majority of speakers have been right-wing or conservative and the protests have been from left-wing or progressive students.

For someone such as me, who attended college during the Vietnam War era, the idea that progressives and liberals would lead efforts to ban speeches on campus is ironic. I remember the years when students protested in order to allow anti-War or Black Panther speakers to voice their opinions on campus and we did so in the name of free speech. When out and out racists, such as George Wallace, or political supporters of the Vietnam War, came to campus, we carried signs protesting their opinions, but rarely their right to express them.

What constitutes hate speech (is it hate speech to protest gay marriage, oppose feminist themes in entertainment, or to call police “pigs”?) and whether hate speech leads to hate crimes or should itself be labeled a hate crime, are debatable issues. Right now, hate speech is, in fact, free speech, according to our Supreme Court. Should universities, particularly public universities be havens for free speech and protect this right at all costs? Must free speech be protected in order to insure a broad education for students? In the long run, does preventing speech that is unpopular with students or faculty run the risk of one’s own speech and ideas being censored in the future, when other opinions become more popular? I think the answers to these last questions are yes, and I think we need a robust debate about this issue.



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