When violent protests erupted at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) last week, I began questioning if the birthplace of the Freedom of Speech Movement also became its deathbed.
Milo Yiannopoulos, an openly-gay conservative columnist and senior editor of right-wing Breitbart News, was invited to speak at UCB by the Berkeley College Republicans. The event was just one stop on his tour of college campuses. His UCB speech was canceled amidst the vast protest.
In a Facebook Live video, Yiannopoulos said he was stunned that people were “so threatened by the idea that a conservative speaker might be persuasive, interesting, funny and might take some people with him, they have to shut it down at all costs.”
He’s right to be stunned.
You see, the whole idea of college is to find yourself. You are supposed to learn about the real world, which means encountering people with opposing viewpoints. Having discussions with people who don’t agree with you challenges your own beliefs to ensure that you stand your ground (or in other cases, persuade you to change). Conversations force you to think deeper when you hear the other side. If you seclude yourself into an echo chamber, only conversing with people who hold the same opinions as you, you are only cheating yourself of your own development.
About 1,500 protesters caused UCB to cancel Yiannopoulos’ speech. However, UCB officials blame a group of about 150 masked protesters (who they say were not even UCB students) for turning the “otherwise peaceful protest” into something that turned violent.
UCB campus police confirmed in a statement that fires set on campus, Molotov cocktails and commercial-grade fireworks thrown at police officers, and smashed windows were “among the evening’s violent acts.” CNN reported there is $100,000 in damage and at least six people injured. One Yiannopoulos fan, sporting a “Make America Great Again” hat, was pepper sprayed in the face by a protester during a live on-camera interview with ABC7 news, a local TV station.
Yiannopoulos is a controversial figure. Opposers to his rhetoric accuse him of spouting hate speech in regards to women, people of color, Muslims and other minority groups. But his protesters don’t see the irony in all of this. They call Yiannopoulos intolerant. What is more intolerant than shutting down someone’s speech because he doesn’t have the same beliefs as you? They want their own free speech to be protected to allow them to protest, but they don’t think Yiannopoulos is entitled to free speech. You can’t call yourself a free speech advocate unless you allow it for all opinions, even those radically different from your owns.
What is really sad is that anytime someone tries to have a conversation to discuss opposing views, the conversation is completely shut down. In this case, it was shut down by setting fires and throwing fireworks at police.
I’m not saying it’s fair to blanket cover everyone who opposed Yiannopoulos as a violent criminal, because that’s simply not true. The students who peacefully protested his appearance have the right to do so, just as Yiannopoulos should have had the right to speak.
The Free Speech Movement that began in 1964 at UCB was first inspired by the issue of civil rights and later intensified by Vietnam War opposition, according to Calisphere, a database for historically important events in California. UCB prides itself on being the birthplace of such a prominent movement, but shutting down Yiannopoulos’ speech last week was nothing short of a free speech funeral.