Milo Yiannopoulos, Free Speech, and the College Campus

milo-yiannopoulos

At the beginning of February, in the wake of protests and riots at UC Berkeley against Milo Yiannopoulos’ proposed visit, One Thing after Another thought it possessed sufficient inspiration to write a post about free speech at colleges—especially as it applied to guests invited to speak on campus. Life intervened, however, and this blog did not quite get around to producing an essay on the topic. Now that Yiannopoulos is back in the news because he has lost his CPAC invitation, his book contract with Simon & Schuster, and his job at Breitbart (all because of his assertion that thirteen-year-old boys have the potential to engage in “consensual” sexual relationships with men twice their age), One Thing after Another feels it has enough momentum to write about free speech. By what standard should one judge whether a Yiannopoulos should be admitted to speak at a campus?

One Thing after Another starts with the proposition that institutions of higher learning, public and private alike, have a right to invite or not invite guests as they wish. Even public schools are not public forums, and administrators have the right to restrict entry when school is in session. The question, of course, is on what grounds administrators should exclude guest speakers from campus.

For reasons that will become very clear, One Thing after Another believes that colleges should ask for something more of their guests than mere legal speech. Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), which supersedes the “fire in a crowded theater” argument laid down by U.S. v. Schenck (1919), sets a fairly low bar. Inflammatory speech that advocates violence is protected unless it “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” And thus, a conviction against Brandenburg (a local leader of the Ohio Ku Klux Klan) for burning a cross and promising “revengeance” against “n******” and “Jews” was overturned. One Thing after Another would prefer not to see cross-burning (or even flag-burning) on campus—not because these things are offensive (which they are) but because they do not advance the mission of a college.

That mission, however, has become increasingly unclear in recent years. Those now in charge of universities are not as well equipped to understand or articulate that purpose as they used to be. Administrators, as Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale, argued at an Aspen Ideas Festival last year, increasingly do not come from academic backgrounds and do not necessarily understand academic freedom. Trained as administrators, they see their job as “to damp down problems” and avoid all controversy. “They have,” Carter adds, “no sense of the mission of a university.” A constellation of factors have further clouded that sense of mission. For example, due to the increasingly difficult economic environment in which they operate, college is often sold as many different products. These products run the gamut from preparation for the job market to a transformative experience in which the whole person is made anew. Everything from the curriculum to residential life has responded to these pressures, and the jurisdiction of the college has expanded to include more aspects of student life than ever before. Under these circumstances, it is easy to lose sight of what is central to university life and what is ancillary.

So what is central? One could do worse (especially if one works at a Catholic institution) than refer to The Idea of a University by Cardinal John Henry Newman. According to Newman, the point of a university was the “culture of the intellect” or the “real cultivation of the mind.” What was wanted, he argued, was the “the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us, which sometimes indeed is a natural gift, but commonly is not gained without much effort and the exercise of years.” A real education allowed one to escape a “youth” in which one was “merely dazzled by phenomena, instead of perceiving things as they are.” He favored a liberal education that developed an understanding of how the particulars in the world were united in a single whole. To his way of thinking, a liberal education was an end in itself.

Newman wrote much that was sensible in The Idea of a University. For our purposes, he discussed a number of ideas that are worth remembering today. He expressed a reverence in his approach to liberal education; it was a serious means to the important end of adopting a broad view of the world and thus understanding its unity. He believed such an education should be conducted within a diverse and earnest educational community. And he intimated that it should be carried on by instructors who practiced what they preached—people who were experts in their fields but not so narrowly focused that they could not see the forest for the trees.

These ideas about the mission of a college and how to attain it provide us with some guidance when it comes to determining what kinds of guests should be invited to speak on campus. Above all else, guests must support the ends and means of a liberal education. The other criteria merely follow from this point.

First, guests must be experts in the fields on which they will speak. Clearly, a school can define “expertise” in a variety ways (how this blog defines expertise will become fairly evident). However, it is One Thing after Another’s impression that this definition should be somewhat more restrictive than it has been as of late. Guests have often been invited with an eye toward publicity, and that often means celebrities  find themselves before college audiences where they do not belong. If you need examples, think of the many, many commencement speeches delivered at various schools every year by actors, athletes, comedians, singers, and so on. Or check these ones out (which are just the tip of the iceberg). People without any connection to the pursuit of liberal education often do not recognize its significance, display sufficient respect for it, or possess any understanding of its protocols. Providing them with a forum to speak on campuses trivialize education.

If what is wanted these days is informed discussion, then it would also appear that a variety of notorieties should also be blocked from campus—figures who are engaged in various public debates but who have nothing profound, learned, or substantive to contribute to those debates. For example, there is no need to invite David Duke or Richard Spencer to campus for a discussion of race; neither has any great insight into the topic. In response to those who will inevitably cry that Duke or Spencer are being censored, One Thing after Another retorts that plenty of other venues are available to them, and colleges need not waste time on their nonsense. For the same reason, we need not invite Holocaust deniers or Creationists. Students should not be presented with all manner of shoddy arguments unsupported by evidence; they need to choose from among the best.

Second, guests ought to respect their audiences by not only deploying arguments based on a thorough understanding of the topic at hand but also by avoiding gratuitous insult. There is no other way to go about persuading one’s auditors within the free market of ideas that underpins a liberal education. In this context, it is important to point out the difference between experts who express opinions that may give offense and those who express opinions offensively. For example, one may find Peter Singer’s views extremely repugnant, but he is an enormously influential ethicist, a recognized expert in his field, and a figure who is willing to engage in respectful debate. Attempts to silence him (and there have been many) are out of order; they suggest that opponents have no compelling counterarguments. On the other hand, threats and insults leveled at various minorities are inarticulate and baseless arguments that are calculated to inspire fear and anger. They appeal to emotions, not the intellect. Again, colleges should not turn away articulate and learned speakers with controversial arguments, but they have every right to ignore fatuous ideas poorly expressed.

Is this post arguing for deference to the experts? When it comes to inviting guests to speak at a campus that seeks to promote the intellectual life, yes (different rules apply, though, when it comes to free speech within the campus community—but that’s a topic for another, more complicated post).

The main idea to keep in mind is that academic freedom is a means to an end, and for that reason, it is limited. As Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, claimed at the same roundtable at the Aspen Ideas Festival where Stephen Carter also spoke,

Academic freedom is not the ability to do whatever the hell you want on campus because it’s an academic place. Academic freedom is a professional freedom. It’s about research and intellectual work. It’s not about saying whatever you want.

It is for all these reasons that Milo Yiannopoulos has no business on a college campus. He could serve no other purpose, really, than to play the part of the drunken helot. It is hard to see how Yiannopoulos is an expert on anything. His relentless humiliation of others is an integral part of his method of argument—and does little to persuade. What he seeks to do instead is provoke. Yet he is a provocateur of the worst sort; he does not seem to believe in anything—or at least he gives that impression. As Slate puts it, “You can’t treat the ideas of Milo Yiannopoulos as though they are worthy of debate, because Milo Yiannopoulos doesn’t treat them as being worthy of debate.” In other words, he displays a lack of the earnestness and sincerity that Newman found so important in his reverential approach to learning. Yiannopoulos’ “shtick” tends toward dissolving taboos and the idea of objective truth for the sake of destroying what he sees as a “leftist-PC” totalitarianism. He is free to do whatever he wants in other public venues, but a higher standard obtains at a college which seeks to promote a broad understanding of the world through the respectful exchange of facts and ideas. Otherwise, when confronted with a seemingly amoral and intellectually destructive charlatan, we in the academe might find ourselves at a loss and, like Larry Wilmore, say something that is not altogether productive intellectually. And that benefits no one.

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