Over 1,000 people gathered peacefully to protest Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech at the University of California, Berkeley, last Wednesday. Yiannopoulos is a right wing provocateur who has been widely criticized for his views on homosexuality, Black Lives Matter activists and feminism. He had been invited to campus by the Berkeley College Republicans.
Then, to disrupt the event, roughly 150 individuals smashed windows, threw Molotov cocktails and assaulted two College Republicans and a woman wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. The Daily Californian, the student newspaper at Berkeley, published several op-eds that defended the violence as a necessary measure against hate speech.
Violence may have forced the cancellation of Yiannopoulos’ speech, but blocking him from speaking did little to stop his message. In fact, the protests drew more attention to Milo and his platform; if there had been no violence, his speech at Berkeley would have been a routine stop on his campus tour. This aggressive strategy is neither sustainable nor effective at implementing social change. The violent protesters may not like Yiannopoulos or his message, but their actions infringed on a basic human right — free speech. The best way to combat radical ideas is not to suppress them but to let them be heard, then combated with more speech. Yiannopoulos’ campus appearance was cancelled, but his ideas remained, temporarily silenced by violence rather than being disproven by reason.
To be clear, this is not an endorsement of Yiannopoulos. Rather, it is a defense of the First Amendment, especially as many on college campuses, including The Harvard Crimson’s Editorial Board, have begun to question its value.
Yiannopoulos’ message may be unpalatable, but he should be given an opportunity to speak to any who wish to hear him. Those who oppose the things he says, too, should be allowed to speak refute his claims. This is not only the most productive way to combat hateful speech, it’s the only effective way.