With free speech eroding, UW stood strong through Yiannopoulos controversy

We’ve seen it on campus after campus across the country, as controversial speakers (and even plenty that aren’t that controversial) are disinvited, shouted down, or threatened to stay away.

We’ve seen it in aggressive protestors who see no irony in declaring a speech they disagree with “assault,” then turn around and call it “free speech” when they use physical tactics or violence to shut down an event.

We’ve seen it in polling among young people, who increasingly show a likelihood to support limits on speech that they find offensive. We’ve even seen it in a presidential candidate who said he wanted to “open up” our libel laws to make lawsuits over speech easier.

Yes, it’s fair to say that public support for free speech has eroded somewhat. Blame it on shifting attitudes, stark political divides, the decline in civics education, or some other favored theory. No matter, it’s clear that reverence for the 1st Amendment isn’t what it used to be.

Not “kinda free” speech – just free, unfettered speech
It’s almost like free speech is a concept that needs to be re-explained. You may not be able to “shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” as the famous example goes, but free speech is a constitutional right with few restrictions.

Political speech is supposed to be the most protected of all. Compared to many other countries, America’s constitution is absolutist on free speech. We all have the same right to state our views, seek to persuade others, and broadcast our beliefs.

There is no carve out for “offensive speech.” No one has a right to shut out voices they disagree with. The 1st Amendment does not allow the government to silence radical voices or opposition parties. Broadly speaking, anything that is not a direct threat or incitement to violence is fair game.

The Milo Yiannopoulos circus
No one on the scene today is providing a travelling lesson in free speech quite like Milo Yiannopoulos. He’s a bleached-blonde, gay, Trump-supporting provocateur. Controversy follows him wherever he goes – or rather, he creates it.

Like Ann Coulter or Tucker Max before him, Yiannopoulos’s business model is dependent on provocation, backlash, and controversy to feed his press coverage. Without it, there would be no wealthy benefactors paying for his tour (he says he does not charge student groups a speaking fee) and no long lines of supporters waiting to catch a glimpse of the show.

Predictably, his opposition provides him with the backlash he needs. Between groups who simply want to counter him, and groups who want to use his campus visits to fundraise for themselves, Yiannopoulos can count on the compelling chaos he needs to feed the attention machine.

UW’s president chose the right path
At Yiannopoulos’s recent speech at the University of Washington, all the elements were in place. Opponents demanded that UW bar him from campus for hate speech. Supporters poured onto campus, many in MAGA hats, while demonstrators heckled them (and some tried to block attendees from getting to the hall). Counter-demonstrators protested the protesters. There were scuffles and a shooting. The chaos helped Yiannopoulos extend his brand.

These types of events put universities in a bind, but UW made clear throughout that it supports free speech. The UW College Republicans can request to rent a hall and bring in a speaker, just like any other campus group. The speaker’s beliefs have no bearing on his, or the student group’s, free speech rights.

Before and after the Yiannopoulos visit, UW president Ana Mari Cauce stood firm. She told the Chronicle of Higher Education after the event:

“One of the things that I think is so wonderful about a university is that, in so many ways, it’s the commons. It’s really important to preserve that commons. One thing I think it’s really important that we not do is to have our campuses become gated communities in order to try to maintain safety.”

That’s exactly the right approach. As she noted in the same interview, “And one of the reasons why we let Yiannopoulos go on is that how can you shut him down and not shut down a Black Lives Matter protest?”

The far left criticized Cauce for not barring Yiannopoulos from campus. The far right knocked her for making it clear she doesn’t approve of Yiannopoulos’s message. But on the key point – to stand up for free speech, or cave to pressure groups – Cauce made the correct, and brave, choice. That has nothing to do with the specific message, and everything to do with preserving everyone’s right to speak freely.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.