I’ve been really troubled by the free speech issues that arose in both San Fransisco and Vermont recently. I fundamentally believe that it is essential for all voices to be heard. However, I can’t support hate speech. And I think the targets of it have every right — an obligation even — to protest/argue/demonstrate against it — short of behaving violently. That said, I do think what Milo Yiannopoulos does goes beyond hate speech. He was publicly outing trans students on their college campuses. Particularly in this environment, that is not okay. So, were I in charge at Berkeley, to protect my trans students, I would not have allowed him on campus. And if that constitutes blocking free speech, I’m okay with it. 

Vermont is a slightly different story. Charles Murray’s rhetoric is hateful and, to my knowledge, has no support in actual fact. So, as a university head, am I doing my students a service by sponsoring him as a speaker? Aren’t there other thinkers, whose underlying assumptions are in some way factually supportable (even if they are odious), who could argue some of the same points? On the other hand, and, as far as I know, he has never directly harmed someone (except to be insulting). So — to me — he is not the same as Milo. And, in the end, he did get to speak, via live-streaming, if not live. However, there were demonstrations and personal attacks, which are just wrong.  As an academician, I might have blocked him  because he has no factual basis for his work or, if allowed to speak, I might have insisted on a counterpoint.

My thoughts in both of these instances are colored by the fact that these speeches took place in an academic environment. While students should be exposed to the widest range of thinking and have their positions challenged all day, every day, I can’t support speech that is directly and purposefully hateful or based on faulty premises. Facts and personal safety are simply too important to be ignored in favor of some other ideal.

At what point are we willing to take a stand on hate speech — as most other first world countries have done? Do we condone a speaker who promotes rape? If not, why condone someone who supports racism or homophobia? They are as damaging.

This is an interesting article. It makes the point that the students did themselves a disservice by ceding the moral high ground to the speakers. But are we obliged to both allow AND promote all speech?

Middlebury: Who Pays for Free Speech?