Free speech is tricky. Somebody cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater, due to the injuries the action may cause due to the mass panic. However, we are left to wonder: does the same reasoning that bars certain forms of speech to protect innocent civilians apply to rhetoric conceived as slander against a particular group? Or does that misconstrue the logic in order to silence those with differing political views?
These questions arose recently when students at U.C. Berkeley, leader of the Free Speech Movement in the ’60s, staged protests on the predominantly liberal campus in order to stop provocative right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, who had been invited by Berkeley’s student Republican group, from giving a speech. They were ultimately successful in their mission — Yiannopoulos was banned from speaking, albeit with $100,000 in property damages.
Yiannopoulos, who refers to Donald Trump as his “Daddy,” came under fire late last year for showing a picture of a transgender woman at U.W. Milwaukee during his speech, calling her “a quote unquote non-binary trans woman” and referring to the student as “he,” before saying “I’d almost still bang him.” In addition, his Twitter account was deactivated in July 2016 after he and his followers led a campaign of hate messages and racist remarks toward Leslie Jones, a black actress who starred in the female-led “Ghostbusters” reboot.
Yiannopoulos has also made several disparaging remarks about feminism, the Black Lives Matter movement and the practices and followers of Islam — for example, calling feminism “cancer;” calling traditional Islam wear such as the hijab “ridiculous” and “hilarious;” and saying that “black lives don’t really matter to Black Lives Matter.”
Language and actions such as these are certainly rude and perhaps inflammatory, but the question remains: is banning Yiannopoulos from speaking at college campuses, thereby superseding the Berkeley student Republican group’s wishes, a violation of the right to free speech?
It is possible that the things Yiannopoulos says and preaches, however, can have devastatingly real consequences. The student that Yiannopoulos harassed left school, for example, and he urged his fans to swarm Leslie Jones’ Twitter because she had blocked him, which she said caused her to suffer serious emotional distress. On a more ideological level, it has been theorized that giving a platform to those who preach hate “normalize” their ideas and allow them to be taken seriously by the general public.
Some would say that regardless of what others choose to do after hearing his words, Yiannopoulos himself is doing nothing but exercising his right to free speech. He can’t control what others do because of him, so why should he be censored?
In addition, the free speech issue is not limited to the censoring of outsiders, such as Yiannopoulos, who provoke their enemies on purpose. At schools like Amherst, Duke, Emory and Wesleyan (all with left-leaning political climates), students have asked for sanctions to ban the use of “All Lives Matter,” trashed student newspapers for writing op-eds that disagree with “Black Lives Matter” and called for the resignation of professors due to speech used in their emails.
How do students on a familiar college campus respond to the question of free speech being threatened?
Sam Rubin, a senior music major and the president of Ithaca College’s J Street U chapter, an organization devoted to finding a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says he doesn’t believe free speech is threatened at college campuses and certainly not at Ithaca College. His opinion on Yiannopoulos, however, invites a different view.
“Our courts have found limits to the First Amendment — it is not absolute,” Rubin said. “Views from the right should be encouraged on our campus; but hate speech has no place.”
About his personal experience, he said: “I have presented views ‘on the right’ in class, both views I hold myself or that I felt should be included in the dialogue. Never has a teacher or student attempted to silence me. If anything, the professors encourage this kind of dissent.”
Sophomore Anna Gardner, the vice president of IC Feminists United, agrees that Yiannopoulos’ dialogue should be construed as hate speech.
“The fact that Milo’s campus tour is titled ‘Dangerous Faggot’ should easily indicate that this is a man who thrives off of hate speech,” Gardner said. “I think it is appropriate to invite individuals who are right-wing, left-wing, conservative, liberal, radical or otherwise to a campus to speak, but not when that person is very clearly coming to conduct hate speech.”
Gardner does not believe that hate speech should be protected under the First Amendment. “To me, freedom of speech is the ability to express your views that could be oppressed by the government or large corporations,” she said. “Free speech is about being not oppressed, not being oppressive.”
However, Gardner did concede that some professors at Ithaca College tend to monopolize classroom opinions.
“I’ve had professors that act like the professor is always right, and sometimes I challenge them and sometimes I don’t. I don’t think I’ve ever felt attacked in a classroom setting, but I do know my peers have. That’s because, for the most part, my ideals match those of my professors.”
Charlie Kane, a sophomore and a Senator-At-Large in the Student Governance Council, had other thoughts, saying he does believe free speech is under threat on college campuses.
Kane feels uncomfortable expressing some of his views in classes at Ithaca College. He identifies himself as socially liberal and economically conservative, and said that the problem doesn’t necessarily lie with professors, but with students.
“When I’m with other students and politics comes up, I either don’t talk or I’ll get into my liberal character who has all the correct views on the world,” Kane said. “It’s been directly told to me on four separate occasions that students will no longer like me if ‘you are a Republican.’”
College students, Kane said, are “very open about their hatred for those with ‘incorrect’ views. Other students with opposing views hear this and keep their mouths shut.”
He also noted that he was nervous simply about sharing these ideas with IC Chronicle.
Ryan King, a sophomore beat reporter for The Ithacan, agreed with Kane that free speech is under threat.
“I have felt uncomfortable sharing my views in some of my classes,” King said. “In some classes, unfortunately, you can’t really say anything positive about conservatives without teachers or students getting upset with you.”
He also agreed that students are generally more of the problem than the teachers, while in some classes professors encouraged dissent. King also believes that the solution to fighting hate speech is not to ban it, but to fight back with your own opinions.
“[Yiannopoulos’] dissenters should have focused their efforts on beating his ideas, not shutting him down,” King said. “Personally, I feel that Milo presents some of his views in a crude manner, but I think that he should not be banned from speaking. Banning him only helps him.”