Is it a simple free speech issue or something far darker and conspiratorial? In either case, Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos is surfing the wave of his notoriety like Laird Hamilton carving down a fifty-foot face at Jaws in Maui.
It all came to a head, of course, when the far-right pundit was scheduled to speak at UC Berkeley on February 1st. But before Yiannopoulos could utter a single inflammatory syllable, the event was disrupted, by peaceful protestors at first, then by “black bloc” property-destroying saboteurs.
Yiannopoulos’ supporters—including Berkeley College Republicans, who invited him to speak—characterized the aborted event as a gross violation of the conservative provocateur’s First Amendment rights. It was deeply ironic, they claimed, that Yiannopoulos was denied free speech at Berkeley, the veritable cradle of the Free Speech Movement in America.
That trope prevailed in the extensive coverage of the Berkeley event, and not just on social media and in the conservative press. The mainstream media ran with it as well, at least initially.
But it is now clear that another element was in play. During his talk, Yiannopoulos apparently intended to release the names of undocumented Cal students. There was no attempt at subterfuge, in that the plan was detailed in articles that ran in the far-right press the day before the event. Indeed, the Office of Student Affairs sent a letter to Berkeley College Republicans expressing concern:
Dear BCR Signatories –
I am deeply aware of the many complex issues that are swirling around Milo’s visit to our campus and you no doubt have a lot on your plates right now. I must now also make sure you are aware that Milo, Brietbart and the David Horowitz Freedom Center have published an article today, 1/31/17, stating their intention to use the Berkeley College Republican’s event to launch their campaign targeting the undocumented student community on our campus. Here is the article:
There are concerns that he will be employing the strategies of using pictures and personal information of Cal students during his speech which, as you know, is simultaneously being live-streamed therefore making these images widely available and subsequently putting students at risk.
Also, please know other targeted groups on our campus have experienced Horowitz’ tactic of publicizing the names and pictures of individuals on posters throughout campus property and there is a likelihood that there will be Horowitz-backed posters pasted throughout our campus tomorrow publicizing the Milo event in conjunction with targeted individual’s names.
BCR has expressed their position condemning these tactics and, in fact, have been victimized themselves [via doxxing]. We are deeply concerned for all student’s [sic] safety and ability to pursue their education here at Cal beyond Milo’s speech. At the bottom of this email are campus resources for reporting incidents.
Please let me know your thoughts on what BCR can do to address the concerns that Milo’s event may be used to target individuals, either in the audience or by using their personal information in a way that causes them to become human targets to serve a political agenda. Let me know if I can be a resource in managing this issue. I will be available throughout the day Wednesday, 2/1/17, at the LEAD Center, 432 Eshleman Hall.
[A Student Affairs Staff Member]
A source close to UC Berkeley’s administration said that BCR then asked Yiannopoulos’ associates to convince him to refrain from naming names.
“But they were told Milo was not in the habit of taking directives, and that he often did the very thing people asked him not to do,” the source said.
Emails from CALIFORNIA to Berkeley College Republicans requesting comment were not returned.
Even if Yiannopoulos had released the names, that wouldn’t have changed the university’s obligation to both uphold the basic tenets of free speech and respond decisively to imminent disruption, said Dan Mogulof, the university’s assistant vice chancellor of communications and public affairs.
“The University cannot prohibit or punish speech that is constitutionally protected, and prior restraint of speech—that is, censorship prior to a court’s determination that the speech is not allowed—faces a particularly heavy legal burden,” Mogulof stated.
Discussion of a person’s immigration status does not fall outside the scope of constitutionally protected speech, says Mogulof. “…So while the university would certainly condemn the targeting of unwilling individuals in such a manner, the possibility that a speaker might do so would not provide a legal basis for the university to engage in censorship.”
Still, Yiannopoulos’ scheme is drawing thunderous fulminations from various quarters, including Cal faculty. In a post following the cancelled talk, former U.S. Labor Secretary and Goldman School of Public Policy professor Robert Reich outlined implications to the uproar that went far deeper than Yiannopoulos’ proclivity for “racist and misogynistic vitriol.”
Reich noted that a Breitbart article that ran the day before the scheduled talk maintained Yiannopoulos intended to demand the pulling of federal funds from Cal and the prosecution of university officials for “endangering” students and quashing First Amendment rights. Reich then observed that the morning following the canceled event, Donald Trump “coincidentally” tweeted:
If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
“Is it possible,” Reich posited, “that Yiannopoulos and Breitbart were in cahoots with the agitators, in order to lay the groundwork for a Trump crackdown on universities and their federal funding?
As noted by the Washington Post, some media wonks share Reich’s suspicions. Cenk Uygur, a former MSNBC host and the founder of the progressive TV commentary show The Young Turks, wondered if the black bloc-ers were in the direct hire of Yiannopoulos and, depending on how you characterize them, his minions or his handlers.
“Could the right-wing come in masked… to cause trouble so they can then turn around and do exactly what they did today, ‘Oh you have to take away the funding from Berkeley’?” Uygur wondered.
The moderately right to the hard-core far-right press predictably have pounced on l’affaire Yiannopoulos.
The National Review chastised Cal faculty members for “justifying” the Berkeley “riots,” claiming “…their messages perfectly reveal the mindset of entitled left-wing privilege.”
And The Daily Caller, a site co-founded by bow-tied Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson, ominously claimed the protests were funded by the Alliance for Global Justice, a progressive charity supported by George Soros, the liberal Hungarian-American billionaire investor who has been promoted by the more exotic fringes of the right as the Dark Prince of creeping and malignant globalism.
Meanwhile, university administrators have had to wrestle with another issue raised by the aborted Yiannopoulos event: The property destruction by the black bloc, which included fires and smashed storefronts.
“This willingness by a coordinated group of individuals to come on campus to engage in violence and infringe on free speech is unprecedented,” said Mogulof. “We have to think long and hard how we manage future [controversial appearances or events]. We’re not alone on that. Law enforcement organizations across the country have similar concerns. They’re in touch with us, and we’re working with them. We haven’t identified [any people associated with property destruction at the Yiannopoulos talk], but investigations are ongoing.”
Jesse Choper, an emeritus professor at Berkeley Law and an authority on constitutional law, said the university was in a difficult position and threaded the needle on free speech and public safety as well as possible.
“I think they did what they could,” Choper said of administrators. “They let Yiannopoulos speak, because they had no real legal justification for stopping the event. They allowed the demonstrators to demonstrate, and dealt with the black bloc when they started destroying property. I don’t come down on the side of the university all the time, but I think they did the right thing in this case. They balanced values and costs.”
The Supreme Court, Choper emphasizes, has been somewhat opaque in its numerous rulings on the regulation of free speech.
“A public institution could conceivably regulate free speech if it meets the ‘clear and present danger test,’” Choper says, “and there’s also what the law calls a compelling government interest. A protest could be stopped, for example, if it shuts down a crucial thoroughfare like the Bay Bridge and puts motorists at risk. I don’t think (Yiannopoulos’ talk) met that standard, even if he planned to release the names of undocumented students…”
When all is said and done, no one came out of the Yiannopoulos brouhaha smelling like a rose—except, it seems, Yiannopoulos himself. Yiannopoulos apparently craves attention above all else, and the Cal non-event seems to have handed that to him in spades. For those worried about his potentially malign civic impact, the best strategy might be simply to let him spew; or better yet, engage him directly. That, certainly, seems to be the opinion of Berkeley sociologist Chris Soria, who was quoted at length on Sunday in Australia’s Daily Telegraph:
“…A lot of people who’ve never heard of Milo are now becoming aware of him simply because of this protest…His book sales are further proof that the attention [he] is getting is favorable to him. In fact, his book sales are up 12,740% overnight... The solution is to beat Milo at his own game. He claims to be interested in free speech. Why not debate an actual expert in feminism, gender studies, or sociology (those which Milo constantly mocks) instead of just mocking them from a distance? If Milo truly believes in the free market of ideas, why not put his ideas to the test against the very best the left has to offer? And if he refuses, it’ll just prove him to be a coward with no real interest in the spread of ideas, but just another troll which should not be fed.”