Violence in any way is not ok

John Paul Castillo, Guest Columnist

We live in an age where passion rules our impulses, where people on both sides of the political spectrum believe themselves to be fundamentally under siege by the rhetoric and policies of the other, and in this environment, clashes between two First Amendment rights can be drawn out, writ large, and made violent. Two recent events on college campuses on opposite ends of the country, the protests of former Breitbart editor Milo Yanniopoulos from a speaking gig at UC Berkeley in February and the ejection of Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, as well as the 1994 The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, from Middlebury College in Vermont have been characterized as out-of-control riots and attacks on free speech, sparking a larger debate on the clash between free speech and free protest in a polarized age.

In the case of UC Berkeley, protests against Yanniopoulos’ planned invitation sparked into damage to up to $100,000 worth of property and six injuries, according to college officials, which UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof claims was the result of the intervention of an Antifacist anarchist collective known as the Black Bloc. In the wake of this, writers from CNN and the LA Times were quick to label the backlash against Yanniopoulos as an attack on free speech, that despite his inflammatory rhetoric, censorship of any kind is a dangerous precedent.

The idea here is that free speech is sacrosanct even for what may be considered hate speech—in the case of Yanniopoulos himself, this defense was undercut upon revelations that Yanniopoulos had been planning to name and call out undocumented immigrant students during his speech at UC Berkeley, as when he used his platform at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to shame a transgender student, and that he had once publicly defended the merits of pedophilia, which eventually lead to his ousting from Breitbart News.

In the case of Middlebury College, students raucously protested the invitation of Charles Murray mostly because of ideas espoused in his 1994 book, The Bell Curve, which linked the class disparities of African Americans to the existence of genetic differences between races that attribute to intelligence. . His newest book, Coming Apart, has entered the social consciousness as one of several books written to explain the phenomena of Middle America; white, rural Americans who feel disenfranchised and lent their support to Donald Trump. During the protests, organizers and Murray himself were said to fear for their safety as protesters disrupted the speech and forced the session to be finished through a live stream, after which the professor who conducted the live stream, Allison Stanger, was injured.

In both cases, the violence was regrettable and unconscionable—violence undercuts the message of these protests, as is clearly seen in the media response focusing on the violence rather than the root causes of the protests.

The main argument of allowing these talks on college campuses is the promotion of free speech, the idea that stifling any kind of free speech for one may be an attack on all. There is credence to this idea of free-flowing and intelligent debate, especially on college campuses. A diversity of viewpoints in the marketplace of ideas is important, and promotion of that is a laudable goal. However, the crux of the protests is not against free speech, but in free platform. Neither college was in any real obligation to showcase the viewpoints of highly polarizing figures such as Yanniopolous and Murray, and the stringent objections of the students and faculty was in service of a defensive impulse: entertaining debate is less essential when the debate hinges on a person’s existence, especially in a time where people see their protections stripped and their existences marginalized.  

On our own campus, and on campuses throughout America, both students and administration should curb the threat of violence and find the balance between passion and rationality, free speech and free protest—perhaps not the Middlebury path, but somewhere in the middle.