February 20, 2017 Update: Milo Yiannopoulos has been disinvited from speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). According to the American Conservative Union, “Due to the revelation of an offensive video in the past 24 hours condoning pedophilia, the American Conservative Union has decided to rescind the invitation of Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference.” Milo defends himself Facebook against the charge of condoning pedophilia here, but does not walk back from a previous comment that ” . . . there are certainly people who are capable of giving consent at a younger age.” For purposes of my essay below, the only reason why any of this matters is because Governor Scott Walker wants to strengthen academic freedom and free speech on UW campuses largely to protect Milo and others who share alt-right sympathies. –Tony Palmeri
In 2005 students at UW Eau Claire invited controversial University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill to speak on campus. Churchill had upset the sensibilities of mainstream politicians and pundits by arguing that the tragedies of September 11, 2001 were “chickens coming home to roost,” and that the World Trade Center was populated by “little Eichmanns” uncritically aiding and abetting a nefarious global financial empire. Professor Churchill ultimately lost his job at the University, even though a jury found that he had in fact been fired because of his controversial opinion and even though his remarks were a classic example of what the First Amendment is designed to protect. If the First Amendment only protects views that meet with the approval of mainstream politicians and pundits, then we don’t need the First Amendment; it would not be worth the paper it is printed on.
The Eau Claire students thought that bringing Churchill to campus was completely in the spirit of the “sifting and winnowing” in pursuit of truth principle that had guided the UW since the late 19th century:
“Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth may be found.”
Much to the surprise of the Eau Claire students, the Wisconsin State Legislature tried hard to pressure Eau Claire into canceling the event, including the passage of a joint resolution. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), in 2005 a member of the state assembly representing Whitewater, led the charge to prevent Churchill from speaking. He said “the university wants to hide behind free speech.” He further told the Badger Herald, “This is not a question of free speech; this is stopping a person who uses hateful, disgusting speech.”
Well it’s now 2017 and it’s looking like Republican governors and legislatures don’t mind hateful speech on campuses if it is coming from right-wing sources. The political rise of Donald Trump in 2015 and 2016 came with considerable assistance and propaganda from the so-called “alt-right.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the alt-right includes “a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces using ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice’ to undermine white people and ‘their’ civilization. Characterized by heavy use of social media and online memes, Alt-Righters eschew ‘establishment’ conservatism, skew young, and embrace white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value.” One of the main organs of the Alt-Right is Breitbart.com, a right-wing “news” site that until Trump had existed mostly on the margins of serious political debate and discourse. When President Trump made former Breitbart Chief Executive Steve Bannon his chief strategist and member of the national security team, it represented a stunning victory for the alt-righters.
How does all this relate to college campuses and free speech? One of the alt-right’s chief provocateurs, Milo Yiannopoulos, is a “senior editor” at Breitbart known for vitriolic crusades against the “cancer of political correctness” and against anything or anyone associated with the political left. So bitter is Milo’s online trolling of people he targets as political opponents that Twitter moved from suspending his activity on that social media site to outright banning him after his attacks on African-American actress Leslie Jones resulted in her being subjected to grotesque racist trolling that forced her off the platform. Milo’s critics, including many on college campuses across the country, see his rhetoric not as conservative but as fascist. At the University of California at Berkeley, Milo’s visit resulted in a campus riot that ultimately prevented him from speaking. Similar cancellations and withdrawals of invitations have happened on other campuses.
Contemporary Republican legislatures and governors, who are “not your grandfather’s GOP,” have developed quite the sympathy for Milo. If a political leftist went on a “Dangerous Faggot” speaking tour, the GOP would condemn it as a symptom of the depravity of our times. Milo’s self-proclaimed “Dangerous Faggot” tour is okay, however, apparently because Milo has the same enemies as the contemporary GOP: feminists, social justice activists, Black Lives Matter, and just about everyone on the political left.
A growing number of Republican dominated state legislatures are now passing “academic freedom” bills designed to “protect” people like Milo. According to the Madison Cap Times, in his 2017-2019 budge proposal Governor Scott Walker recommends “codifying the state’s commitment to academic freedom,” and providing $10,000 in funding for the UW System to review and revise “policies related to academic freedom.” Walker argues that “The board and each institution and college campus has a responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”
Read that line again and then think about the treatment of Ward Churchill I described earlier. In that situation, who was trying to restrict debate and deliberation? Academic leftists? NO, IT WAS THE LEGISLATURE. So if I understand this correctly, the same legislature that wanted to ban Ward Churchill from a UW campus because his dissent over the accepted meaning of 9/11 represented “hate”–that same legislature would have no problem with a campus speaker who espouses actual hate toward feminists, Muslims, transgender people, and leftists.
Remember Steve Nass? In 2017 he is a Senator in the Wisconsin State Legislature. He has not yet made any in-depth comments about the governor’s “Milo Law” provisions, but he has threatened to push for reductions in UW funding based on the fact that courses are offered that he finds objectionable. So much for academic freedom. Worse, when non-traditional student at UW Madison Daniel Dropik–who it turns out had in the past been convicted of setting fire to African-American churches–tried to set up a White Nationalist group on campus, Nass somehow found a way to defend him. According to the Associated Press, “Nass spokesman Mike Mikalsen said while Nass disagrees with many of Dropik’s views, the university community unfairly targeted Dropik. ‘Individuals who have alternative viewpoints have a right to express themselves in a university,’ Mikalsen said. ‘That did not happen here.'”
No doubt Milo Yiannopoulos would also see Dropik’s white nationalism as an “alternative viewpoint.” Does Governor Walker see white nationalism as just another viewpoint? Does Assembly Speaker Robin Vos? Will any journalist even bother to ask them?
Let me be clear: I am not saying that Milo or other racist, bigoted speakers should necessarily be prevented from speaking on college campuses. I do completely understand the views of those who say that Milo-style rhetoric, because it is rooted in bitter intolerance, violates civility and democracy principles that are necessary for real dialogue to take place and thus protecting the safety and dignity of all members of the campus community requires denying a platform to such an open advocate of hate. On the other hand, as a First Amendment advocate, I do lean toward the position that public universities should offer protection to the widest range of political views, no matter how horrifying. In 1989 I was teaching at the Rochester Institute of Technology when Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was invited to speak on campus by a recognized student organization. There were many attempts to get his speech cancelled–including a bomb threat that ended up delaying his start time by 2 hours. In hindsight, I think the decision to allow Farrakhan to speak was sound–recognized student organizations have to have the ability to determine who they want to hear speak. Had the student organization that wanted to bring in Farrakhan been told that they had to withdraw the invitation because the speaker was a dangerous fascist, what the students would have pulled from the experience was that the dangerous fascists were those who did not want the speaker to visit campus.
My outrage is really aimed at the hypocrites in state legislatures who become “academic freedom” and “free speech” champions only at the behest of hate organizations. The governor who is now lecturing us about the need for diverse viewpoints is the same one who tried to eliminate “search for the truth” from the UW Mission Statement. As the “Milo Law” debate continues, ask yourself if the legislators and governor who were willing to strike “search for the truth” from our mission are really, truly interested in the protection of academic freedom. I think not.