Saturday, February 4, 2017

Free Speech, Berkeley and Violence

The whole idea of free speech in the United States and to a lesser extent what is referred to as the West is that the State, that is government authority, can not sanction or prevent people from expressing their views. There are of course exceptions to this. I don't really have an interest in detailing or debating every last single court decision or legal argument around such exceptions. I'm not a lawyer. That's not the point of this post. The basic concept of free speech is that each individual is free to distinguish between truth and fiction, good ideas and bad on his or her own, using the logic, free will and intelligence that he or she has been granted by their Creator. In the US at least (again exceptions duly noted) there is no such thing as blasphemy. That is the state generally can't outlaw your speech because the state says it has bad content or is hateful. You can write nasty things about Jesus or Muhammad or Moses. You can make fun of other races or genders. You can't be arrested or put in jail because of bad thought nor can the state prevent you from speaking because of bad thought. These free speech protections do not apply to private actors nor do they allow you to use free speech as part of other illegal actions and claim that the illegal action was protected because of free speech concerns. Free speech doesn't allow you to demand that other people listen to you. Free speech doesn't mean that you can heckle someone and prevent them from being heard. Free speech doesn't mean that you can't be harshly criticized for what you say. Free speech may not even mean that if you say or write something on your own time and dime which your employer or business partner doesn't like that you may find yourself out of a job or business relationship. If you annoy someone on social media that person is under no obligation to talk to you or let you use their platform.

The conservative gay provocateur, Trump supporter and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopolous has made a recent living accepting invitations to speak to conservative or Republican audiences at college campuses. From my perspective Milo is a troll. As far as I know, these are paid invitations. Many of the colleges or universities are public schools. However some of Milo's speeches have been cancelled because people opposed to his ideas (and to be fair insults) have used violence or the threat of violence to force authorities' hands and make the schools cancel Milo's event. And that is what happened recently at Berkeley, where Milo, who had been invited to speak by college Republicans, saw the event called off because of violence and threats of violence. BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Chaos that erupted at the University of California, Berkeley, to oppose right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was shocking not just for the images of protesters setting fires, smashing windows and hurling explosives at police, but because of where it took place. UC Berkeley is the birthplace of the free-speech movement and has been known for more than a half-century as a bastion of tolerance. As the university cleaned up Thursday, it struggled with questions of why the violence spun out of control and what has happened to the open-minded Berkeley of the 1960s.

"It was not a proud night for this campus," school spokesman Dan Mogulof said, later adding, "We are proud of our history and legacy as the home of the free-speech movement." The school prides itself on its liberalism and political correctness, but many on campus pointed to the irony of the historical fight for free speech turning into a suppression of unpopular views today.

The mayhem achieved its goal of canceling an appearance by Yiannopoulos, a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump and a self-proclaimed internet troll whose comments have been criticized as racist, misogynist and anti-Muslim.Peaceful protests grew to a crowd of over 1,500, police estimated, before "more than 100 armed individuals clad in ninja-like uniforms" showed up. They hurled fireworks, Molotov cocktails and rocks at officers, UC Berkeley Police Chief Margo Bennett said.

She said officers "exercised tremendous restraint" to protect a crowd filled with students. No arrests were made and no major injuries were reported, a change from some high-profile protests at Berkeley decades ago. Police did not advance on the crowd as they used barricades to bash windows and set fire to a kerosene generator, sparking a blaze that burned for over an hour.

A small group later took the chaos into nearby city streets.Workers at several banks replaced broken windows Thursday, repaired damaged cash machines and cleaned graffiti from walls. Campus officials estimated the damage at about $100,000.Amid the cleanup, a 21-year-old student who supports Trump was attacked on campus. Jack Palkovic wore a "Make America Great Again" cap as he headed to class when two young men jumped from a car and pummeled him. Police arrived and arrested them. The university said the alleged assailants had no connection to the school.


There are some writers who have decried this result( Milo not being allowed to speak). 
Other writers have supported the outcome. 

Milo points out the hypocrisy on the left. I would say there is just as much hypocrisy on the right. Look at the right wing attacks and the constant calls for censorship or job loss against any college professor who is accused of anti-white or anti-Semitic (Pro-Palestinian) bad thought. So neither side has clean hands on this matter.
To me there are a few very simple non-negotiable baselines.
The state has no business attempting to shut down bad thoughts as opposed to bad actions. As an adult moral actor you are free and must remain free to turn to evil if you so desire. The state may punish what you do, not what you think or say. This is the very definition of a free society. I get to decide what thoughts are right or wrong for me, just as surely as you do for yourself.  
Allowing private actors to prevent the exercise of a constitutionally guaranteed right is just outsourcing the violation of your rights. It doesn't really leave the state with clean hands because it technically didn't violate your free speech rights. If someone threatened to blow your brains out for voting you would expect the state's representatives to take action to guarantee your right to vote, not just shrug and claim that since the state wasn't preventing you from voting there's no problem.
If you must use violence or the threat of violence to shut down people from speaking you're just revealing to the world that you don't think your ideas can't hold up to investigation or debate.The only legitimate use of violence is self-defense. Becoming hysterical because someone you don't like is speaking to another group of people that you don't like is silly and pointless. You're only doing Milo's work for him. You're showing that fundamentally you're a bully.
Once you legitimize the use of violence as a normal part of the political process the country can not truly be free. No one is safe. If it's okay to prevent people with the wrong ideas from speaking then why isn't okay to prevent them from voting? Why should they be able to walk down the street in safety? After all they're dangerous aren't they? If you accept this sort of logic it's hard to see where it stops. How are the people who riot to prevent Milo from speaking any different than the racists who rioted in Peekskill to prevent Paul Robeson from giving a concert? Additionally the left is not exactly over populated with the kinds of people who are armed to the teeth and well trained in firearms usage. The right, however, is. Do people really want to endorse the idea of using violence to get their way politically? They might find that they will lose. What happens the next time someone decides to punch someone out or spray them with mace and the putative victim pulls her handgun and starts shooting? I am old enough to remember the Greensboro Massacre. It's not smart to sell wolf tickets if you're really unprepared to deal with the Big Bad Wolf. Also there's a long history of government agents using violence to infiltrate and discredit protest movements.I wouldn't be surprised if some of the people urging or using violence against Milo and his ilk are agents attempting to provoke reactions and justify further reactionary actions. It's an old trick. If someone is saying something you don't like then protest is valid. Throwing items through windows isn't valid. I understand that people don't want to listen to ugly speech that they think is specifically designed to insult them. And that is fine. It's not fine to try to force the speaker to shut up so that no one can listen to him or her. To say this is not to defend the bad content of what a speaker may have to say. It's merely to say in this country everyone has the right to speak. Endorsing or turning a blind eye to violence designed to prevent speech is an ugly betrayal of the most basic civil liberty.
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