The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Much of the debate about speech on campus focuses on whether certain speakers should be allowed to speak on college campuses. Too little considers what sorts of speakers conservative and libertarian groups should invite to campus if they want to further reasoned discourse and expose their communities to a wider range of political viewpoints.
The College Republican chapter at UCLA—the Bruin Republicans—recently decided to invite noted controversialist Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at a campus event. Apparently the group believes Milo will draw a crowd and serve as an effective fundraiser.
Professor Gabriel Rossman, one of the few open conservatives on the UCLA faculty, takes exception to this invitation. In an open letter published by The Weekly Standard he urges the Bruin Republicans to reconsider. The whole thing is worth a read. Here is a taste:
The most important reason not to host such a talk is that it is evil on the merits. Your conscience should tell you that you never want anything to do with someone whose entire career is not reasoned argument, but shock jock performance art. In the 1980s conservatives made fun of "artists" who defecated on stage for the purpose of upsetting conservatives. Now apparently, conservatives are willing to embrace a man who says despicable things for the purpose of "triggering snowflakes." The change in performance art from the fecal era to the present is yet another sign that no matter how low civilization goes, there is still room for further decline.
I want to be clear that my point here is not that some people will be offended, but that the speaker is purely malicious.
Many speakers and many speeches will offend people, especially given the sense among many on the campus left that they are entitled to complete isolation from ideas with which they disagree.
This is different. . . .
As Professor Rossman goes on to explain, if the aim of hosting outside speakers is "to spread conservative ideas," inviting someone like Milo Yiannopoulos will likely do more harm than good. Hosting a talk "by someone whose sole recommendation is that his offensiveness to others is his big idea" is no way to convince others to take conservative ideas seriously. It is, however, an awfully effective way to convince others that your organization is indifferent to racism, sexism, anti-semitism, and (in Milo's case) pedophlia.[*]
Professor Rossman's letter concludes:
I am a strong believer in freedom of political speech. However, there is a distinction between tolerating speech and sponsoring speech. Neither I, nor you, nor Chancellor Block have the right to say that Milo Yiannopoulos can not give a speech on campus.
But neither does that mean that I, nor you, nor Chancellor Block needs to actively invite him and actively promote his childish provocations. If he wants to stand on Bruin Walk ranting with the other creeps and lunatics, he can do so. I believe people have the right to do all sorts of things in the privacy of their own homes, but that doesn't mean that I would invite them to do them in my living room for an audience of me and my dinner guests.
If you go through with hosting Yiannopoulos, I will vociferously support your right to do so—and the duty of the UCPD to use force if necessary to maintain order and prevent a heckler's veto. However, I must just as vehemently and publicly disagree with your decision to host him.
[*] UPDATE: Milo Yiannopoulos has e-mailed Reason noting his objection to the suggestion that observers might conclude that an organization that invites him to speak is "indifferent to . . . pedophilia." Any such suggestion, Milo claims, would be "grotesque and wrong."
I will take Mr. Yiannopoulos at his word that he objects to pedophilia and that any conclusions to the contrary are based upon a misunderstanding of his comments in a controversial video. In the past, he has attributed this misunderstanding to "sloppy phrasing," a failure to appreciate "British sarcasm," and "deceptive editing." Whatever the reason, I think it is indisputable that many interpreted his comments as endorsing pederasty if not also exhibiting a degree of indifference to pedophilia, notwithstanding his subsequent protestations to the contrary. As a consequence, inviting Mr. Yiannopoulos to speak does pose the risk of "convinc[ing] others that your organization is indifferent to . . . pedophilia." [The e-mail from Mr. Yiannopoulos did not object to any suggestion that inviting him might suggest an indifference to racism, sexism, or anti-semitism.]