UC Davis and the American Tradition of Free Speech

There was recent uproar at the University California, Davis over a talk, organized by the Davis College Republicans, given by Milo Yiannopoulos. Milo is a provocative spokesperson for young conservatives who also happens to be gay. Beginning as a technology reporter, Milo rose to fame for his blunt criticisms of Islam, contemporary feminism, and political correctness on the basis of a strong valuation of free speech. For instance, after the shooting of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Milo claimed that violence is not an exception in Islam, but the norm. He has also said that feminism is cancer.

Milo is a polarizing figure on college campuses, to the extent that he has his own security personnel. When he showed up at UC Davis, protestors came out in full force. The protests were so vigorous and at times even violent that the university was forced to cancel the event. Even before the event, students were urging university administrators to cancel the event because of their discomfort with Milo’s views. In the school newspaper, which is called the California Aggie, student Hannah Lee, expressed sympathy for these calls to ban Milo from the campus. She wrote, “Many members of the Davis community, rightfully fearful of the Wisconsin incident and outraged by Yiannopoulos’s beliefs, have called on the administration to cancel the event.” Lee identifies Milo’s skepticism about a rape culture existing on college campuses and the claim that birth control makes women miserable and fat as examples of his outrageous beliefs.

Unfortunately, Lee’s call, as well as the UC Davis students on whose behalf she is writing, shows a deeply flawed understanding of free speech in America and confirms the worst stereotypes of her generation, which many refer to as the snowflake generation. A snowflake millennial is someone who refuses to engage with people who have different political views. They lash out in outrage, and try to prevent their opponent from even speaking, claiming that the opponent’s views are harmful and need to be suppressed. Lee writes in her piece that Milo’s view are not just those of a misguided but well-intentioned citizen, but a fanatic: “But the ideas espoused by Milo should offend all people—at least, all people with any shred of humanity or decency.” So, if you like Milo, you are evil, without any humanity whatsoever.

Questioning whether there is a rape culture on campus, I think, does not mean that one lacks any shred of humanity. One might ask, legitimately I think, what the phrase “rape culture” means. But, even if we concede Lee’s point that Milo’s views are radically out of bounds, Lee’s implicit views on free speech deviate from established American law. Two recent Supreme Court cases, one in 2012 and the other in 2011, show how far the government will go to make sure that free speech is protected.

In a 2011 case, Snyder vs. Phelps, the Supreme Court considered the behavior of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church. A central belief of this church is that God is punishing America for its tolerance of homosexuality. Church members protest alongside funerals of members of the military, voicing their opinion with chants and signs saying God is causing the deaths of soldiers because of divine wrath over homosexuality. One individual, Albert Snyder, the father of a dead solider, became so incensed at the Westboro Baptist Church for protesting at his son’s funeral that he decided to sue. The church took refuge under the free speech protection of the first amendment. The Supreme Court refused to restrict the protests of the church, which they considered to be protected speech. Their reasoning was that the Westboro Baptist Church was taking a stand on a public, not a private, matter. Their protests were not directed personally at Snyder but were about larger national concerns, such as the social status of homosexuals, the proper understanding of theology, and war. The Court reasons that, on matters of public importance, there must be vigorous and open debate, and therefore Westboro has the right to voice its opinion. This decision was reached by an 8-1 vote.

The 2012 case is called U.S. vs Alvarez.  In this case, a man named Xavier Alvarez, an elected official on a water board in California, claimed in a public meeting that he had been a Marine, was wounded many times in combat, and even received the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor. None of these claims were true. When Alvarez’s deceit was exposed, he was charged under the Stolen Valor Act, which is meant to punish those who falsely claim to have received honor for military service. Alvarez fought back by claiming that his lies were protected by the first amendment, which guarantees the right of free speech. The case worked its way up to the Supreme Court, and the Court found that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional. The Court viewed the Stolen Valor Act as imposing a content-based restriction on speech. In other words, the act forbade certain types of speech based on what was said, not the way in which it was said, or when, etc. The Supreme Court claimed that content-based restrictions—restrictions having to do with what is said—are only appropriate in certain extreme circumstances, such as when the content of speech is likely to incite imminent lawless action or child pornography. Lying about one’s military service, even as an elected official, was not problematic enough for the Supreme Court to condone a law that restricted it. The Court ruled that even such lies are protected speech.

These two cases show how committed the American legal system is to protecting free speech. Even such obviously loathsome behavior on the part of Xavier Alvarez, and the wacky ideology of the Westboro Baptist Church, are protected from governmental interference. This shows how illegitimate it is for the students of UC Davis to prevent Milo from even coming to their campus, and by extension, to suppress the curiosity of the Republican students there. No matter how much Milo gets under your skin, his views are not as extreme as those of Alvarez or the Westboro Baptist Church. If the latter two groups are protected by American law, then so is Milo. If you disagree with Milo, then you can organize a separate event, or peacefully protest. But, you cannot prevent him from coming at all. Barack Obama said at a town hall in Iowa, “I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative…I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”

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