Banning Speakers Is Absolutely Wrong

, John K. Wilson, Leave a comment

Milo Yiannopoulos’ much-hyped Free Speech Week at Berkeley has disappeared, not with a bang but with a whimper. The whimper came yesterday when Milo made a brief appearance on Sproul Plaza, where he sang the Star-Spangled Banner (without kneeling) and left about 30 minutes later. Berkeley spent an estimated $800,000 on security for the event. Several dozen supporters showed up to hear Milo, and a few hundred protesters.

Milo has made himself the poster child for free speech on campus, and because people hate Milo, they’ve begun to question campus free speech, too. But banning speakers is wrong, even when it’s done for financial reasons, and even when it takes the form of imposing security costs on those who invite controversial speakers. Berkeley is creating a financial version of the heckler’s veto, and it must be rejected.

Why did Free Speech Week get cancelled? It’s easy to blame Milo, because he represents the combination of vile beliefs repulsively expressed and gross incompetence in arranging an event. Free Speech Week was plagued by missed deadlines and fake news, with various announcements of speakers who had not agreed to speak (and in some cases had never been asked).

But there is a bigger issue here about the principle of free speech on campus. I believe in defending that principle, even though Milo is an idiot. And I worry about the policies and practices of the Berkeley administration being enacted to try to stop people like Milo, because the threat to free speech goes far beyond Milo. I’ll address Berkeley’s flawed policies soon in another post, but here I want to respond to some of the arguments favoring censorship of Milo.

Before Free Speech Week fizzled out, a group of Berkeley faculty demanded that the university ban the event.

The letter declared, “as faculty committed to the safety of our students and our campus, we are calling for a complete boycott of all classes and campus activities while these Alt-Right events are taking place at the very center of UC Berkeley’s campus.”

The faculty letter was deeply misguided, despite its good intentions. Calling for a campus boycott with the goal of banning certain events and certain speech is an attempt at repression. (However, there is little danger that college administrators ever listen to faculty.)

The letter noted, “In fact, campus safety concerns have already forced the Anthropology Department to cancel a public talk during ‘free speech week.’ This makes clear that the administration understands the imminent threat to campus safety while also revealing that the loud demands of the Alt-Right has the effect of silencing members of our campus community.” The Alt-Right did not silence anyone; overblown fear of protests against the Alt-Right did. There was no good reason why the administration demanded that the Anthropology Department pay extra for security for a planned talk during Free Speech Week (the security at the library would be needed whether there was an event there or not). There was no threat to the talk from the Alt-Right or anyone else.

According to the faculty, “there are forms of speech that are not protected under the First Amendment. These include speech that presents imminent physical danger and speech that disrupts the university’s mission to educate. Milo, Coulter and Bannon do not come to educate; they and their followers come to humiliate and incite.” This is a false and extremely dangerous narrowing of free speech. Milo’s talks presented no imminent physical threat. Incitement to violence is an extremely narrow legal category and one that almost never can be determined in advance of the actual inciting words being spoken. The only danger might have come from left-wing protesters, but the idea that they present a physical threat is really a right-wing smear abetted by the administration’s excessive security plans. The notion that a planned speech by a former leading adviser to the president cannot educate someone is wrong. There is a lot to learn from Steve Bannon, albeit mostly by rejecting his terrible ideas. It is extremely dangerous to announce that the government can decide in advance which speeches are educational and which can be banned for the crime of “humiliating” others. I would love to speak at Berkeley about my anti-Trump book, Trump Unveiled. But I would certainly try to humiliate Trump and his supporters. Should my talk therefore be banned? Humiliation is not a valid standard.

This letter of faculty declared, “Cancel classes and tell students to stay home. A boycott of classes affirms that our fundamental responsibility as faculty is to protect the safety and well being of all our students. While we understand the argument that canceling classes might be seen as a penalty to students who want to learn–by holding class when some students CAN NOT attend by virtue of their DACA status and the imminent threat that these campus events hold, faculty who DO hold classes are disadvantaging DACA students and others who will feel threatened by being on campus.”

But this entire argument for a boycott is based on a false premise. There was no threat to DACA students from allowing Free Speech Week. If right-wing nuts like Milo decide to disclose the status of DACA students, it means literally nothing. The whole point of DACA is that it’s a government registry, which means the government already knows who these students are. The idea that students “CAN NOT attend by virtue of their DACA status and the imminent threat” is just absurd. Does anyone think Milo has access to the DACA database? Does anyone imagine ICE agents will suddenly (and illegally) arrest DACA students because Milo identifies them at an event?

If you believe in applying the heckler’s veto to Milo and friends, then you open the door to apply it to left-wing speakers, too. The “threat” argument given by these faculty would only justify banning protests against Milo, not Milo himself.

These Berkeley faculty claim: “We refuse to grant the Alt-Right the media spectacle that they so desperately desire.” Of course, being banned is exactly the media spectacle that the Alt-Right desire the most. This letter is a gift to the Alt-Right, not an attack on it.

They are not the only ones to draw the worst lessons from Milo. In the New York Times, Aaron Hanlon argues, “the reality is that ‘free speech on campus’ is not resource-neutral.” No, it is not. And that’s exactly why free speech must be defended according to principles. The cost of security, based on the violence of the opposition, is not a sound principle for silencing free speech.

According to Hanlon, “The question of which campus speakers warrant security funding is real and challenging.” Actually, it’s not. That’s like asking which professors warrant security funding. If a left-wing professor tweets something offensive and receives death threats, should the university fire him with the excuse that he isn’t good enough to deserve substantial security funding? Or good enough to deserve the loss of funding from angry donors and politicians? The moment you say that campus freedom should depend on how much it costs the university, you have sacrificed academic freedom and free speech on campus.

Hanlon argues, “When speakers like these cost hundreds of thousands of dollars but add scant academic value, the issue is more complicated than the radical or offensive nature of their views.” No, it’s not. If you give administrators the power to ban speakers based on the costs imposed on their protesters, it’s exactly the same as banning them for having offensive views, except that you’re simply outsourcing the logic to security costs.

Every controversial speaker or professor or student on campus has a potential cost, whether it is police or donors or public support or students refusing to attend. Academic freedom demands that universities ignore that cost, and fully protect the freedom of everyone. When it comes to academic appointments, the judgments must be based on academic value; but when it comes to extramural speakers, there are no judgments made by the administration about which speakers are good or bad. It is dangerous to give the administration the power to decide the academic value of speakers when so much money is on the line.

Hanlon calls for “educational standards for who deserves a college platform and financial resources.” This is an extremely dangerous stand. There are plenty of speakers on campus—musicians, comedians, and others—who don’t serve a clear educational standard and shouldn’t. And there are also political provocateurs, left and right, who add to the free exchange of ideas even though they may not meet someone’s academic ideal of a speaker. But the biggest problem with Hanlon’s theory is that puts an unequal burden on controversial speech. Since controversial speakers are the only ones who require security fees, they will be the only ones banned under Hanlon’s proposal. But a university should stand for the value that controversial speech deserves the greatest protection, not the least.

It appears that Berkeley may be embracing Hanlon’s approach. Chancellor Christ announced last week that Berkeley would re-examine its policies: “We should explore whether there should be a limit to the number of events a student group can schedule in a row, whether we should have an annual budget for security costs, and whether criteria for status as a student organization should be reviewed.”

Let me translate that: Christ wants to ban controversial groups from holding more than a few events, wants to ban them from having events that offend protesters and cost too much in security, and then wants to ban the controversial group entirely if possible. This, needless to say, is a dire threat to free speech. Suppose that a student group draws protests by virtue of their existence. Should they be banned from having weekly meetings? Or merely disbanded when they reach an annual limit in being protested?

Consider this: when Ben Shapiro spoke at Berkeley earlier this month, the College Republicans were required to agree to pay basic security costs of $15,738 in order to reserve a space for him.

In the end, Berkeley says it spent $600,000 protecting Shapiro’s speech. Milo was required to pay $65,700 to reserve two indoor spaces on campus, which the administration cancelled anyway.

These are shocking numbers. A typical speaker at Berkeley requires zero security. It is the threat posed to a speaker that leads to security expenses, and charging any student groups for security violates Berkeley’s own policies. And yet Berkeley is now planning to find ways to make these groups pay even more money, or face their events being banned.

The high cost of security threatens all controversial speech at Berkeley, especially left-wing speech. Most left-wing and mainstream student groups cannot afford anything close to those figures for a campus speaker. For example, I help organize the Chicago Book Expo which is being held on Oct. 1 at Columbia College Chicago and features dozens of interesting and controversial speakers. If we had to pay even $2,500 in security fees (more than our entire budget), we would cancel the event forever. Right-wing groups can get Koch money and other billionaires to make some of their events possible. But how many left-wing speakers would be cancelled if groups and departments were charged $15,738 in security fees for each event? 90%? 95%? 99%?

What makes anyone think this won’t happen? Do you imagine that white supremacists are such nice people that they would never try to shut down left-wing events by holding protests? Do you imagine that college administrators are fearless fighters against oppression and would never impose security fees to silence offensive left-wing speakers who damage a college’s reputation and threaten its fundraising? What exactly is the basis of anyone’s hope that the heckler’s veto, once institutionalized with security fees, will not blow back against you?

I think the Berkeley Administration wants to escalate its security requirements in order to discourage groups from inviting controversial speakers and in order to justify censoring speakers. Certainly, it makes no sense that a 30-minute peaceful appearance by some nut on a public square should cost a university $800,000 in security costs.

And it has been a highly effective strategy. People who normally would never have considered banning speakers or limiting the number of events a group can organize on campus are suddenly looking at six-figure security costs and deciding that maybe censorship makes financial sense. But that mindset supporting censorship is created by the choices of the administration, the choices of excessive security and control over campus.

So what is the solution to the problem of universities wasting millions of dollars protecting a handful of idiots from the handful of idiots who violently protest them? One solution is that universities shouldn’t pay anything for additional security. If Milo decided to speak at a public square in Berkeley, the city of Berkeley police and other government agencies would pay for the security expense of dealing with protesters. The government, not the university, should pay for the cost of policing a protest. And the cost of the police should not be billed to the person or group being protested, any more than a crime victim should be billed for having the police investigate the crime and enforce the law. If a university chooses to take on the role of policing, then it must follow the same rules and cannot bill the person being protested.

The AAUP’s 1992 Statement On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes noted, “On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful or disturbing that it may not be expressed.” The AAUP’s 1967 Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students noted, “Students should be allowed to invite and to hear any person of their own choosing.”

These principles do not permit universities to ban “bad” speakers or allow a heckler’s veto to prevail, whether by shouting down or violence or its close cousin, the security fee.

Free speech is easy when thoughtful speakers we agree with are being silenced. The real test is when idiots we hate try to speak, and the protests against them cost a lot of money. But it’s not a difficult test to pass if you just imagine the positions being reversed. If a speaker you support is being protested by white supremacists, should that speaker be banned because of the expense?

The practice of a university charging groups five-figure fees for controversial speakers is a severe limit on free speech. It is a heckler’s fee, and when it reaches thousands and thousands of dollars, it amounts to a veto in most cases. Charging these fees ensures that only controversial speakers with wealthy benefactors (who tend to be conservative) can afford to speak on campus.

Berkeley is sending a clear message to the white supremacists: If you can threaten trouble and damage property like Antifa, then you, too, can effectively censor speakers through security fees. This is how charging for controversial speakers (or banning them) tends to encourage violence rather than preventing it. The only way to stem the violence is to stop rewarding it. For anyone who wants to ban a speaker, rioting has become an effective tool of censorship.

This essay originally appeared on the academe blog maintained by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).