Berkeley Protesters Exercising, Not Curtailing, Free Speech

Rowan Bassman, Contributing Writer

Hateful speaker and Breitbart News senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking at University of California, Berkeley on Feb. 1 by students and community members in a massive, successful exercise of the First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly.

Yes, you read that correctly. Free speech won on Feb. 1.

Outraged columnists and public figures — including President Donald Trump, who tweeted a vague threat to cut Berkeley’s federal funding — would have you believe that individuals protesting to prevent another individual from speaking constitutes an attack on free speech. Nothing could be further from the truth. It seems we’ve collectively forgotten how free speech operates, who is allowed to exercise it and who is responsible for enforcing it.

To begin, here’s the entire text of the First Amendment. Don’t worry, it’s short.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

That’s the whole thing.

Only the state can curtail free speech, because only the state can grant it. And only individual citizens and private institutions can exercise it. Nowhere does the First Amendment say that individuals cannot exercise their free speech in a way that prevents other individuals from being heard. Berkeley students speaking out against Milo Yiannopoulos is an instance of free speech versus free speech — a conversation in which one party speaks louder than the other.

It could be argued that the extensive property damage and fights instigated by members of a masked group at the protest mean that it was not a “peaceable” assembly. But if the only assemblies to be protected are “peaceable” ones, then Milo Yiannopoulos has no right to one either. On Dec. 15 at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, he targeted a trans student, misgendering her and using transphobic slurs against her. On Jan. 27 at the University of New Mexico, Yiannopoulos declared that “illegal people are not a race” and displayed a slide that read, “PURGE YOUR LOCAL ILLEGALS.” Many believe he planned to publicize the identities of undocumented Berkeley students at his event. Defending Yiannopoulos’ assembly while condemning the protesters’ implies a hierarchy of violence that prioritizes property damage over revealing personal information with clear intent to harm targeted individuals.

Acting UNM President Chaouki Abdallah defended allowing Yiannopoulos to deliver this hate speech by declaring that UNM is part of the “marketplace of ideas.” But the whole concept of an idea marketplace — the underpinning of most Supreme Court decisions regarding free speech throughout the 20th century — frames speech as inherently competitive. It assumes that interruption is inevitable and that the most-demanded voices will drown out others. And as with other free market environments, our speech may be technically “free,” but there is nothing equitable about who has access to it. In most cases, money speaks louder. Whiteness speaks louder. Masculinity speaks louder. The “market” is monopolized by people who wield these privileges. This is a rare and welcome instance of a mass refusal on the part of the market to acquiesce to those dominant forces.

Why do we lament a supposed loss of free speech when protesters shut down violent speaking events, but not when the protesters themselves are beaten, pepper-sprayed and silenced by state forces? Why do we fail to recognize these monopolies in our “marketplace,” and rush to protect them by stifling dissenting voices?

Arguments against interrupting a speech rely on moral propriety, not legality. It’s intellectually dishonest to say that a disruptive protest is a hindrance to free speech. What you really mean is that these protests break the expected decorum for a speech — the expectation, in other words, that everyone else remains silent.

I can’t think of a more vital time and place to exercise the right to free speech and free assembly than when everyone else demands respectful submission to hate.

When President Trump accuses protesters of opposing free speech when they are embodying it, that’s what an attack on free speech looks like. That is a state effort to suppress dissent. This is also true when the president attacks the press by bemoaning all incriminating media reports as “fake news” and “the opposition party.”

The right to speak is not a right to speak unopposed. If Yiannopoulos has the right to speak and assemble despite his violence, so do his opponents. At Berkeley they spoke louder and should be celebrated for it.