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There are times when, in defense of free speech, we must swallow our personal opinions and allow opposing viewpoints to be heard. There are times when we must stifle our urge to disagree in favor of exposing ourselves to new facts. There are times when we must tolerate even what we ourselves see as intolerant.
CU Boulder’s decision to host conservative icon and professional alt-right agitator Milo Yiannopoulos is not one of those times.
The former social media celebrity is scheduled to speak on campus Jan. 25 as part of a national college tour, brought here by two student groups at CU, the College Republicans and CU’s chapter of the conservative group Turning Point USA. Yiannopoulos, who was banned from Twitter this year after inciting racist and sexist remarks against actor Leslie Jones — and was barred from two other universities this year — should not be given further latitude to spread his messages at CU. There are several reasons why.
In the event notice sent to students, Yiannopoulos is identified as a journalist. I respectfully refrain from using that term. Yiannopoulos has indeed been an editor and writer for Breitbart News, the outlet once run by President-elect Donald Trump’s far-right chief strategist.
But it is difficult to call that website anything other than a propaganda forum for racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and other forms of discrimination that define the alt-right. If you want to know what Yiannopoulos is like, look no further than his piece from July on how women should respond to harassment on the internet.
“Women are — and you won’t hear this anywhere else — screwing up the internet for men by invading every space we have online and ruining it with attention-seeking and a needy, demanding, touchy-feely form of modern feminism,” Yiannopoulos wrote. He went on to further insult women and transgender individuals, implying that if women don’t like misogyny on the internet, they should just stop using it.
And that’s not satire, although I’m sure Yiannopoulos would hide behind that defense. Outlandish idea or not, Yiannopoulos unequivocally believes that, unless they stop complaining, women should get out of what he says is a rightfully male-dominated place.
On Thursday, Chancellor Philip DiStefano sent students a letter noting the concerns about allowing Yiannopoulos to speak on campus that he received via social media and in personal letters. He defended his stance, saying that he “believes that civil discourse is the best way to advance better understanding” among opposing viewpoints.
Let me be clear: I do not disrespect the chancellor, and I believe he has well-meaning intentions. But any reasonable person would be compelled to ask: What goals does hosting Yiannopoulos achieve? Whose opposing viewpoints need reconciling when the speaker says that women “don’t work as hard” as men and incorrectly denies the wage gap? Or that transgender people are “terrifying” and should be feared and mocked?
What civil discourse is attained by hosting a speaker who openly mocked efforts to raise awareness about rape and downplayed the seriousness of the problem in our country? Yiannopoulos even bragged about doing so, insulting at length people who tried to raise awareness about sexual assault. (It’s worth stopping here for a moment to emphasize that Yiannopoulos is empirically wrong in denying the existence of western rape culture.) For CU to say it wants to combat the rampant college sexual assault problem and then host a speaker who flouts the issue is a bald contradiction.
The disappointing irony is that DiStefano was less tolerant of the anti-gay group Westboro Baptist Church, who demonstrated on campus in 2010. It wasn’t a university-sanctioned event — members gathered where approval isn’t required — but at least DiStefano labeled them as “despicable” and beneath our community.
In last week’s letter, DiStefano said, “I believe that discrimination and harassment have no place on our campus,” but that the university must be a “place where you can listen to speakers you support or oppose and then make up your mind … [doing] so sharpens intellects and broadens perspectives, even when it’s uncomfortable.”
But a free speech defense does not justify Yiannopoulos speaking at a ticketed event in a campus building, especially at a university that has promised, for at least the past 14 months, to expand diversity and make more students feel welcome. We’ve seen email after email from CU promising to promote inclusion, and forum after forum on the subject since last spring. But by sanctioning this event, CU is doing the opposite of matching its words with legitimate action.
If the university wants Yiannopoulos to exercise free speech in the same tones other discriminatory hecklers do on our campus, it can direct him to the fountain.
The student union at the University of Manchester in England tried, but failed, to ban Yiannopoulos because of his comments about rape and transgender individuals. DePaul University did ban him from holding another event after his “inflammatory speech” caused a hostile environment on campus and a security disaster at a May talk. NYU canceled his October event for similar reasons. CU Boulder should issue a full ban on a Yiannopoulos event in campus buildings.
Free speech is important, but it always has limits. Several students have been outright expelled or suspended from universities around the country in 2015 and 2016 for racist statements on social media and other offensive actions. Would CU tolerate a student posting Yiannopoulos’ sexist and anti-transgender vitriol? How about a professor or a member of administration? Why is Yiannopoulos, who writes, publishes and speaks it nationwide, treated any different?
CU Boulder cannot say it opposes discrimination and harassment and at the same time bring to its campus someone whose career has been built on discrimination and harassment.
Conservatives are quick to label those who call to ban speakers as hypocritical ideologues trying to silence people who disagree with them. The accusation is far from true — these are not partisan issues, and we should otherwise welcome reasoned debate. But people can debate about Black Lives Matter, feminism and even abortion without misrepresenting and degrading entire groups of people. We can have thought-provoking dialogue without tacitly encouraging students to treat each other in harmful ways. Those things are not a package deal.
The chancellor noted in his letter that Yiannopoulos is “not the first controversial speaker we have had,” going on to note that former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean and Edward Snowden (via video conference) have all spoken at our university. But Yiannopoulos is not Rove. He is not Dean. He is not a high court justice, and he is not a whistleblower.
He is a controversy chaser whose fame is built on insulting and discrediting people who disagree with him. There is no educational or discursive value of bringing such a speaker to our students. He has equated the Black Lives Matter movement to the Ku Klux Klan and said it advocates “racial segregation.” These blatant inaccuracies have no place in a reasoned debate, and challenging Yiannopoulos in person will do nothing to change his mind or the minds of those that agree with him.
But we can prevent him from emboldening like-minded people here — as the election emboldened Trumpian rhetoric nationwide — and we should. If we want to learn about the alt-right and debate their ideals, let’s — but that does not require giving the movement, or Yiannopoulos, more credence by playing host to them.
Yiannopoulos has, in the past, offered talks about whether feminism has a “problem with free speech.” And yes, perhaps — and that’s a big perhaps — such a dialogue could spur productive conversations. But not if it’s delivered by someone who has demonstrated outright disrespect for women time and time again. We cannot excuse indefensible ideas, harmful to nearly half our student body, because a speaker may — may — offer some thought-provoking points. There are too many other speakers who offer both diverse ideas and basic human decency to allow that.
The chancellor noted that some speakers make the campus “uncomfortable.” He is correct.
Other speakers, though, are an affront to what this university has claimed to stand for, especially in recent months. The chancellor and the university as a whole should bar Yiannopoulos from speaking in this campus’ buildings.
Contact CU Independent Editorial Manager Ellis Arnold at firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @ArnoldEllis_.