Yiannopoulos: Offensive, but Protected by Free Speech
February 21, 2017
Filed under Opinion
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By Rachel Vigil
In the wake of the 2016 election, the country has experienced a surge in protests, or at the very least the visibility of them.
Because of this, the recent protests that took place at University of California Berkeley may seem like one of many, albeit a more violent one. These protests, however, are of a very different ilk and are in many ways a sign that the road we are currently traversing down in the United States is dangerous to our fundamental rights.
On Wednesday Feb. 1, Milo Yiannopoulos, a right wing reporter for Breitbart news whose views have been divisive, was scheduled to speak at Berkeley. There had been complaints about his speaking by several teachers and student groups before wednesday night and around 1000 people were gathered to peacefully protest Yiannopoulos. However those actions were nothing compared to the group of black-clad protesters who stormed the campus just hours before Yiannopoulos was to appear.
While the protest was made up of about 1,000 people, only 100 were rioters. These protesters, who the university has said they are in no way affiliated with, stormed the campus, breaking windows and setting fires, forcing the university to go on lockdown and cancel the scheduled speech.
These protesters are often referred to as a “black bloc,” and have become increasingly common in Bay-Area protests. They caused an estimated $100,000 worth of damage, and two campus Republicans were injured while conducting an interview.
The greater problem, however, is that these people were protesting a speaker and were able to successfully cancel his appearance. Berkeley is often seen as the cradle of free speech, due to the student-led protests in the 1960s that were a larger part of the free speech movement. This recent event has raised doubts over whether that can remain to be true.
The First Amendment protects several fundamental rights, including the right to assemble, freedom of religion, the right to petition, the freedom of the press, and free speech. But what exactly does free speech mean, and are there types that are not protected? According to several court rulings, speech that causes immediate harm to others (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, for instance), speech that is obscene (this usually only applies to pornography), defamation, direct threats, and government secrets are not protected by the First Amendment. Hate speech, on the other hand, is protected by it. The Westboro Baptist Church’s 2010 case Snyder v. Phelps decided that free speech about a public issue on a public sidewalk cannot be considered tort, or emotional distress.
Now, Yiannopoulos’ views are often incendiary and offensive, but they are protected by the First Amendment. No matter how much his words may hurt others, they are views that he is allowed to hold and express just as any American citizen can. As a nation, the larger issue here is that of the protesters’ success.
This so called “black bloc” espouses direct action to change what they see as societal problems. Made up primarily of members of the anarchist movement, they are in many ways similar to the alt-right. They care little about the public opinion or their portrayal in the media. They also disdain mainstream liberals, just as the alt-right disdains mainstream conservatives. Both groups seem increasingly poised for violent action as well. Anti-fascist members of the black bloc and participants of a white supremacist rally even clashed this summer.
While I understand their desire to end inequality and racism in the country, the black bloc and similar groups have an alarming disrespect for the speech of others. Even as they exercise their right to protest, they aim to silence others also attempting to exercise their first amendment rights. That is, all in all, a hypocritical move.
Our government, regardless of what we wish it could be, is a republic, moved not by direct action, but by political ones. Free speech can be used to sway people or politicians, but they should not be used to muffle free expression. Groups that try to stifle speech they do not like may soon find themselves being stifled by those who do not like what they are saying.