Freedom of Speech and limits

Earlier this year, I was accused of what some folks these days are calling a microaggression(s).  I still have no clue what I was alleged to have done, because a degree of care was taken to safeguard the victims (that is a good thing by the way … if people are actually being wronged by someone with power over them, I’m not big on victims having to put themselves in jeopardy to seek protection).  When my boss and I gave the folks an opportunity to speak up anonymously, there was some pretty vile hatred spewed out, but not a single direct charge of wrong doing.  It led to a lousy year, and I still don’t know who felt vindicated over this.

Over the past few years (and before that) every year around this time there are several stories about colleges who disinvite guests who were invited to speak at their graduations because students in large (or at least vocal) numbers didn’t like them.

I’ve been a supporter of the students on that one.  My argument is that graduation is one of the few times when it is all about the graduates, and if they don’t like who is speaking, they should have a say in that.  It is their ceremony.  In particular, there was a case where Bill Maher was disinvited, and I thought it was fairly cowardly to not comment until he was back in the safety of his studio where he could bash away at students taking away his right to speak.  Bill should know that the First Amendment doesn’t really apply here since it wasn’t the government infringing his right to speak, and that this also wasn’t students turning their backs on a chance to learn, unless they earned a credit for his lecture at graduation, which I think they didn’t.

On the flip side, I’m pretty much against most cases where students would move to block a speaker coming on to campus in other situations:  to address a class, teach a class, give a speech, address a campus organization, etc.  Universities should be where speech for the sake of learning must be guarded preciously, and if it is going to be denied, there had better be under a very short list of situations.

That takes us to two weeks ago here in Chicago, specifically DePaul University.  DePaul is one of the largest Catholic universities in the country, and being Catholic, it will never be accused of being far left in its thinking, but being a Chicago urban school, it is hardly a school embraced by Opus Dei.

Two weeks ago, the College Republicans at DePaul invited Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus.  I’ve never heard the man speak, but I’ve heard that he is pretty far right, and very much attempts to rile up audiences (the name of his current campus tour is “Dangerous Faggot”, so that all seems to jive with his M.O.)

Given that the City of Chicago had virtually no problem moving in and shutting down a Donald Trump rally hosted by Donald Trump himself, you almost had to predict how this was going to go.  Apparently, in preparation for the talk, as is tradition on college campuses the world over, chalk signs began to appear along the lines of “Blue Lives Matter” and “Trump 2016”.  In my opinion, not that terribly inflammatory, but these were interpreted as microaggressions, and DePaul banned the use of chalk on sidewalks.  The new signs of “Trump 2016” and “Fuck Mexico” were then painted in black paint to make the point that this was not stopping anyone.  “Fuck Mexico”, IMO, crossed the line from “aggressive stance” to “hate speech”.  That was not acceptable on a college campus.

When Yiannopoulos finally arrived, it wasn’t long before protesters broke in and grabbed the microphone.  He then began inciting some of his listeners to stepping outside where a small scale riot broke out.

DePaul’s official position was to apologize to the College Republicans for not being able to hear their speaker, and chastising the protesters.

You can guess where this is headed now.

The protesters, and several members of the faculty are now railing against the administration for not acknowledging the danger they allowed by letting this guy on campus, after they were asked repeatedly not to allow him to speak.


Let’s take a moment and analyse this.

Going back to the beginning, should DePaul’s administration have stopped this?  Under what circumstances should they have stepped in and said “no”?

I think it is universally agreed that “unpopular”, “says bad things”, and “I disagree with them” is not grounds for denying a campus speaker.  Does a speaker have to be “educational” in some way? I would argue that this is shaky ground … we can always learn something from anybody.  Back in 2011, Northwestern University had a class in human sexuality that included a live demonstration of a sex toy. Necessary?  Educational?  Always in the eye of the beholder.

I think one argument for a ban has to do more with the actual purpose of a speaker vs simply what they stand for.  Is the speaker genuinely trying to convey some message (even an unpopular one), or is this person attempting to actually create the potential for a dangerous situation.  SCOTUS long ago set a limit on speech which is “clear and present danger”, which works well for society in general.  Incitement too can lead to restrictions.

It is very possible that this Yiannopoulos guy was not so interested in addressing the troops of Trump 2016 or discussing the cons of a welfare state.  I can’t know this for sure, but having viewed some of his videos and online articles, I get a strong feeling that he tries to get people to act out so that he can then turn around and present proof that his leftist enemies are the hate filled scumbags he professes them to be:  a scientist gathering evidence to support the hypothesis by fixing the outcome of the experiment in his favor.

I would say that if DePaul’s administration vetted this guy (and I think they definitely should have), and it creeped into their minds that this  guy is more about creating conflict than discussing it, then I think DePaul should have nixed this idea.  From a strictly neutral standpoint, it is a bit shocking that the College Republicans would bring this guy in in the first place, because I don’t think he was winning over any fence sitting hearts and minds (if they all really agree with this guy, then I suppose they wanted good theater for the evening, and they got what they wanted).

These days it is far from easy.  I think (and hindsight is 20/20), that colleges need to be more careful about looking into which campus visitors are more about connecting to students with a message or a story or whatever, vs visitors who are more about themselves, and the creation of violence as their own performance art.


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