As the dust settles after UC Berkeley’s violent riots and subsequent cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulous’s speech, it is important, however painful, to once again haul ourselves over the coals of the campus free-speech question. Were Berkeley right to cancel Yiannopoulous’s visit, in the face of such vehement resistance?
In a word: no. Clichéd as such terminology is, universities should be the epicentre of a free-flowing exchange of ideas. The benefits are universal: not only do their students hone their intellectual rigour, but new and often dangerous ideas are put to the sword of society’s brightest young minds. Exposing students to ideas they find disagreeable and/or offensive does not sharpen just their intellect, but also improves their character, as they become accustomed to the importance of responding to troubling words and ideas in a civil and adult manner. Such meetings of minds temper the volatile impulse of youth with the vital ability to agree to disagree.
Berkeley’s decision is inimical to all these ends. Not only did they deprive students of what would have been a stimulating discussion, but they demonstrated to others already lacking in emotional maturity that throwing their toys out the pram is a viable route to getting what they want. However idiotic and criminal the protesters’ actions were, the true vandals were the UC Berkeley administration, who should have known better than to inflate the protesters’ perception of self-importance even more. It is understandable that, with such violent unrest, the University felt it could no longer guarantee the safety of neither Yiannopoulos nor students attending his event – but by bowing to such pressure, they have set a dangerous precedent.
The time has perhaps come for government to step in. President Trump’s Twitter-issue threat that universities failing to guarantee freedom of speech might lose federal funding may be a portent of long-overdue executive action to curb the growing trend of educational institutions rolling over to a vociferous minority, after an administration which seemed happy to criticise it, but loath to act. The response cannot stop at this, however. Universities must no longer coddle students who protest criminally; they must confiscate this weapon, by rigorously prosecuting any student engaging in violent or destructive protest, and expelling them to boot. For all their bleating about oppressed minorities, the supporters of speech policing on campus fail to recognise the tyranny of their behaviour toward any who dare to disagree. Academic freedom describes that of the pen, not the sword.
For their part, supporters of campus censorship frequently argue that, for a private institution to deny an individual speaker a platform is not censorship. This is true, in the same way that no person is obliged to open their home to people they find disagreeable – and it is why Yiannopoulos is not the victim here. Universities might act without federal encouragement, were they to discard their sclerosis and recognise that the true victims are the many decent students who wish to engage with different and often controversial opinions.
This misgiving is at the heart of the campus free-speech debate. Whilst universities have the power to deprive whomever they wish of a platform, they must recognise upon whose neck it falls, should they choose to wield it. For universities to capitulate to demands from one group that only speakers who conform to their ideology are allowed on campus represents heinously unequal treatment, and an institutional failure to protect that most virtuous of instincts: the desire to engage, discuss, debate and learn. By engaging in censorship, universities persecute not the speaker, but the many inquisitive students who would otherwise form the audience.
This is how Berkeley’s actions should be remembered: not as a violation of Yiannopoulos’s right to speak – but as a violation of their students’ right to listen.