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Freedom of speech is applicable to all: How a violent protest at the University of California, Berkeley, promotes suppression of free speech and undermines the purposes of protesting

Posted on 02.22.2017

The University of California, Berkeley, recently scheduled to have the controversial figure and senior editor for Breitbart News Network Milo
Yiannopoulos speak on campus on Feb. 1. However, the speech was shut down due to a violent protest that erupted as a result of the speaker’s appearance on campus. Yiannopoulos is an openly gay man, but also a right-wing conservative who often has been criticized for racist, misogynistic and transphobic remarks and also has been referred to as “The world’s biggest internet troll” by Vice News, Fusion, the Verge and even himself.

Obviously, the appearance on campus of a man like this is going to cause some uproar, but the result of what happened is what sickens me.

As a journalist, the one thing I value above all else is freedom of speech; not freedom from speech, not freedom to choose only the speech you like, but the freedom for every single person, no matter his or her agenda or beliefs, to speak his or her mind without fear of violence or incarceration. Whether I disagree with that speech is an entirely different argument. Personally,  I believe Yiannopoulos is a despicable character who contributes to an ever-growing rift between the political left and right in the United States and someone I disagree with politically on almost every issue. But I cannot, in good conscience, say that this man has no right to have his opinions heard while I am writing about my opinions and publishing them for the world to read.

Graphic by Erik Cliburn

Graphic by Erik Cliburn

Let me be clear. This is not a condemnation of protests or even the original protestors at UC Berkeley, but it is a condemnation of the use of violence to harm freedom of speech. According to CNN, the protests began peacefully; apparently with 1,500 people rallying on UC Berkeley’s campus. Then about 150 “masked agitators” incited the violence. This included throwing fireworks and rocks at police, lighting fires on campus, throwing “Molotov cocktails” at parked cars, pepper spraying Trump supporters, and so forth.

All of this resulted in more than $100,00 worth of damage, and for what? This embarrassing display of violence not only cost UC Berkeley and various private individuals money, it also suppressed free speech. Not only did it silence Yiannopoulos, it undercut the whole reason for a protest in the first place.

UC Berkeley is known historically for the Free Speech Movement in 1964. This protest and many others around college campuses in the 1960s, along with the Civil Rights Movement embodied what many think of as iconic examples of free speech. But when violent attacks such as these are carried out in the name of ending hate, the whole point is lost. You may not like what someone has to say, and you don’t have to agree with that person, but listen (even if it is hateful) and rather than reacting with violence, retort with words. A well-reasoned and rational argument will always trump violence. Understand that a man like
Yiannopoulos, who is known as “the world’s biggest internet troll” wants this exactly to happen so that he can say, “Look, I told you those liberal, college kids don’t support free speech.” Don’t fall into that trap.

Cases such as this recent one at UC Berkeley should remind us all of a lesson from the wise Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who devoted his life to the issue of civil rights. He knew combating people who are full of hate, such as Yiannopoulos,  with more hate only increases the problem.

This is personally my favorite quote by King, and it speaks volumes about how to approach someone who spews hate: “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love…. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth…. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

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