Last Wednesday, a fiery pother erupted on the University of California, Berkeley’s campus in response to the planned appearance of the inflammatory conservative editor Milo Yiannopoulos. Angry that Yiannopoulos had been allowed on campus, masked agitators infiltrated a protest against his speech and turned it violent, throwing rocks at police and breaking windows in what was deemed by the Berkeley College Republicans—the group that invited Yiannopoulos—as the killing of free speech. The ordeal was shameful for all parties involved, but especially for liberals trying to regain respect after devastating electoral losses last November.
Contrary to the expressed feelings of some, it is not a “crazy idea” that the Berkeley Republicans would have sought to bring Yiannopoulos to campus. Although he is widely viewed as a far-right bomb thrower, his movement—the so-called “alt-right”—has been legitimized as a force in politics through the rise of President Donald Trump. Representing the “alt-right” through speakers on campuses is, perhaps, an educational necessity.
To be sure though, Yiannopoulos is a strange character to choose for a group looking to show off the positive sides of the alt-right movement. A blatant racist and sexist, he has espoused views that are despicable to most college students. In his mind, the number of female STEM students ought to be capped, gay people ought to “get back in the closet” and Muslims ought to be banned from the west. And although all of that is hugely objectionable, it doesn't justify banning him from campus. What does make Yiannopoulos worth banning (and the general test that those who utter hate speech should be held against) is that he has repeatedly instigated his cultish followers to target people he does not agree with. Time after time, he’s shown that he is willing to single out individual victims to be the focus of his vitriol, knowing fully well that doing so could cause them serious harm. In December 2015, he persuaded his Twitter followers to harass actress Leslie Jones, ultimately leading to her deleting her account. A year later, he singled out a transgender student on the University of Wisconsin’s campus and urged a crowd to mock her appearance. Both instances cross the line of free speech and make it clear that Yiannopoulos is not simply a race-baiting provocateur, but is someone who purposefully harms others and thus is not worthy of the honor of speaking on a campus. If the Berkeley College Republicans truly wanted to bring in a speaker from the alt-right, they ought to have opted for a standard-bearer like Tomi Lahren or Stephen Miller—both equally “alt-righty,” but neither threatening to the safety of others.
It would, of course, be ridiculous to blame Yiannopoulos and the Berkeley Republicans for the entire brouhaha. The reactions of agitated protesters cannot be condoned. Their decision to fight fire with fire only legitimized claims that the left is terrified of free speech and is hypocritical in its calls for rule of law in the country. This was a cut-and-dry case where violence was clearly not the answer, and by giving into their emotions and abusing them, protesters failed their cause.
Although we strongly hold that Berkeley student protesters were just in the cause of their protest against vile racist and sexist beliefs, we equally strongly condemn the masked marauders who infiltrated their protest and turned it violent. Nothing is ever built on fire, whether the flames are of the burning, hateful rhetoric of Milo Yiannopoulos or the literal conflagrations set by protesters.
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