Editorial: Free speech cannot be conditional on political beliefs

On Feb. 1, an event at the University of California, Berkeley featuring controversial Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos was interrupted and eventually cancelled by a peaceful protest that turned violent, resulting in roughly $100,000 in damages. News sources also reported smashed windows of Berkeley buildings, indiscriminately thrown Molotov cocktails, and multiple injuries. The protest began with about 1,500 people exercising their First Amendment rights with chants and signs displaying, “No safe space for racists” and “This is war.”

Unpacking the event and the subsequent protests is complicated; the original peaceful protesters were exercising their freedom of speech by challenging Yiannopoulos’ vitriolic penchant for exercising his own freedom of speech, and the entire situation was escalated by the introduction of violence that effectively quelled both Yiannopoulos and the peaceful protesters’ displays of their own freedom of speech.

The University had its own brush with Yiannopoulos last Feb. when the Bucknell University Conservatives Club (BUCC) brought him to campus to speak amid calls for boycotts and protests. However, the opposition to his visit fizzled on the night of the event. Contrary to what most expected, the event was peaceful and attendees did not display outward disrespect for the speaker, though many in attendance expressed their discontent with the speaker’s contentious opinions on feminism, race, and politics during the Q&A session. The demeanor of the audience at this event, where many provocative views were expressed, should not be glossed over; listening to people who present alternative opinions on topical controversies is valuable if only for the reason that it starts a dialogue or debate.

In the case of Yiannopoulos, the hateful message he spins on his visits to college campuses is certainly part of his provocateur act, and should not be touted as the highest echelon of anti-political correctness and pro-freedom of speech. However, the true pursuit of freedom of speech is a practice that, when exercised responsibly and with factual basis, should be rewarded with a respectful reception.

More recently, Christina Hoff Sommers, who runs in the same circles as Yiannopoulos, visited campus on Feb. 9 at the request of BUCC. Though the content of her discussion and subsequent Q&A was rambling and unfocused, the symbolic nature of feminist scholars and students in voluntary attendance—who largely disagreed with Sommers—cannot be denied. And calls for the silencing of differing opinions cannot be tolerated if the pursuit of intellectual diversity and freedom of speech is to be realized. Those who asked questions and engaged with the speaker at Hoff Sommers’ talk, as many esteemed faculty and students did, should be credited with attempting to understand the other side.

Universities are under the obligation of being spaces for free speech and intellectual discourse. Now is the time in our lives when we have to explore our opinions, values, and beliefs—and when we have to learn how to intelligently, eloquently, and respectfully voice them. Pretending that we can ignore opposing opinions is not beneficial to ourselves, our peers, or the viewpoints that we support.

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