What if they gave a racist rally and nobody came? That looks to be a possibility for Milo Yiannopoulos' "free speech week" in Berkeley, California. If his rally fizzles, many on the right will claim it as further evidence of liberal oppression of open discourse. In fact, it's really just another example of the ways that modern-day bigots have hacked our free-speech norms.
Back in January, in a column for Pacific Standard, I described Yiannopoulos as setting a "trap" for people who want to defend vulnerable individuals while protecting free speech. Since then, Yiannopoulos fell out of the mainstream of right-wing media, but has maintained a lively and profitable presence on the fringe. Lately, he and the Berkeley Patriot, an online conservative magazine, announced "Free Speech Week" from September 24th through 27th, featuring a who's-who of right-wing celebrities. Then the cracks started appearing. The Daily Californian reported that most of the speakers had not been confirmed, then followed up by revealing that security deposits to use auditoriums hadn't been paid. Charles Murray, who had been listed as a speaker, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he would never agree to appear anywhere with Yiannopoulos "because he is a despicable asshole."
Since then, some speakers have confirmed that they are willing to attend, according to Breitbart, including Ann Coulter and Steve Bannon. But those two names were not on the list that the Berkeley Patriot provided to the college, and the question of venues remains open. Nothing, to my current knowledge, has been booked. Yet already Yiannopoulos and the local hosts are crying foul, claiming that the university is stifling their free expression by denying access to the various spaces—spaces that, as far as anyone can tell, Yiannopoulos and his backers never even booked.
What if this was the plan all along? It's impossible to know about intentions, but it is clear that, in claiming he's being denied his First Amendment rights, Yiannopoulos has gained outsized publicity. The threat of cancellation as a result of incompetent organization can thus be spun as censorship. Given the great publicity Yiannopoulos gets every time he cancels, why even bother organizing an event like this? Just blame the university and reap the rewards of being a free-speech martyr.
This would be a good moment to change how we address issues surrounding free speech on campus. Yiannopoulos enjoys ample speech rights, as do most people in this country. To my mind, he lost the right to be on a college campus when he exposed a transgender student to harassment, but clearly lawyers disagree. Yiannopoulos is careful not to explicitly incite physical violence and has claimed, less than credibly, that he never intended to "out" University of California students who were undocumented. I understand the impulse to defend his rights among those concerned with free speech, regardless of his vile messaging—but what if he's just trolling our consciences? What if he never planned this rally, but just wanted the publicity of being "canceled" once again?
Meanwhile, thanks to "safety concerns," the annual distinguished lecture of the Department of Anthropology at Berkeley was canceled. Anna Tsing, a leading anthropologist, was going to speak at the Morrison Library. Then administrators told the department that, although this lecture had been scheduled many months in advance, the presence of Yiannopoulos on campus at the same time as this lecture would either need extra security (paid for by the department) or else a new venue at the last minute; failing that, they would have to reschedule. In other words, Yiannopoulos' potentially phony "Free Speech Week" abrogated the very real speech rights of a brilliant scholar. In a joint letter, Berkeley faculty wrote, "If this 'Year of Free Speech' is about giving an equal platform to all speakers, it would seem that it has already failed. Hate speech has taken precedence over academic discourse."
Free speech is messy. One person yells. Another is silenced. These situations require deep thinking and careful investigation of how to defend a core American freedom. What we can't do is promote simplistic, absolutist fealty to abstract rights without exception because that creates the potential for Yiannopoulos' mischief.
It's long past time to understand that Yiannopoulos is a hacker, and to develop more resilient information systems, even as he maintains his basic constitutional rights to free expression. As journalists, we should cover him when he acts, but not capitulate when he tries to bait media coverage through this kind of sham show. Berkeley has worked hard, too hard to my mind, to accommodate hate-mongers. At least make him pay the security deposit before we cover his free speech game. More important, even if we choose to defend the rights of racists to claim the stage, we have to learn to also hear the silences—those, like Tsing, forced to keep quiet as bigots like Yiannopoulos scream.