Hindsights in History: Free speech was a mistake

Milo Yiannopoulos speaks at a conference in 2013. / Photo courtesy OFFICIAL LEWEB PHOTOS, Creative Commons
Milo Yiannopoulos speaks at a conference in 2013. / Photo courtesy OFFICIAL LEWEB PHOTOS, Creative Commons


Part 1: “Milo’s”est Point

By Jose Castillo, political columnist

It is from the foams of commenters clashing, deep in the abyss of hate-filled message boards and online forums, that the self-proclaim provocateur and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos found a legion of keyboard warriors who would follow him in the fight against political correctness. After years of bouncing from news segments and college seminars to obtuse articles, it seemed the fall-out at University of California Berkeley that prevented Yiannopoulos from speaking had finally propelled him—and his fringe politics—into the mainstream.

He dominated the following news cycle. His book, Dangerous, shot to #1 in pre-orders on Amazon. Even liberals were defending him. Yiannopoulos had arrived, not just a provocateur, but a poster boy for free speech. At what seemed to be the highest point of his career so far, he declared free speech to be a conservative position on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

Yiannopoulos isn’t necessarily wrong. Those on the right have always seen political correctness as a very serious issue. But free speech, or in this case, “complete and untethered dialogue,” is a stance most people already take. In fact, it’s probably one of the safest stances to make, as many on the left, the right and the middle subscribe to the Voltaire school of thought: “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Unfortunately, this paints an issue that demands critical thinking and thoughtful analysis as black and white. To take on a Voltaire approach means to take on a passive defense of free speech—a valuable opportunity to those with the most dangerous ideas.

Free speech protects us from government censorship and repercussion. Despite being guaranteed to us by our Constitution, free speech has had a turbulent history in the United States. In 1918, American socialist Eugene Debs was convicted under the Espionage Act for giving an anti-war speech. During the 1950s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for communist infiltrators led to publicized trials of artists and entertainers such as Charlie Chaplin and Arthur Miller. On the campaign trail, now-President Donald J. Trump told supporters he would open up libel laws, which were unanimously upheld in the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

But when Yiannopoulos talks, he isn’t talking about these issues. He’ll bear the weight of “free speech” while ignoring Trump’s attempt to disenfranchise the free press. What free speech means to him is dialogue unbounded, that his hateful rhetoric deserves to be heard. It’s important to understand the difference between the Constitution’s “free speech” and Yiannopoulos’s. One distinctively defines the only possible perpetrator as the government, and the people as victims. Milo’s free speech is just jargon, used to label those who disagree with him as intolerant for standing against speech that is dismissive of the problems minorities face.

In 1977, the Illinois Supreme Court allowed the National Socialist Party of America to march through a community more than two-thirds Jewish, where thousands who had suffered in concentration camps had resided, all in the name of preserving a twisted sense of “free speech” very much similar to Milo’s. Does the National Socialist Party believe in the free speech themselves? Would it defend the rights of Jewish people to speak freely, or any other group of minorities for that matter? It irks me that to some, the idea of tolerance is a hate group twisting the arms of government with an idea that they couldn’t care less for, in order to parade around their perverted ideas in front of their biggest victims.

It is frustrating to think that being the bigger man in this case would mean simply ignoring the Nazis, instead of demanding they stop hiding behind what many hold as one of the reasons this country is so great. If you truly believe in free speech, it is not enough to passively defend it. If rhetoric hides behind free speech but rejects it completely, that rhetoric is more a threat to free speech than any group of dissenters or protesters or rioters could ever be. It is in these times when moderates with good intentions defend all idea’s right to be publicized, do the most repulsive pass by, quietly unquestioned and almost even affirmed by Voltaire thinking.   

“Free speech,” in use solely to project disgusting, distorted, debased ideas, is a mistake. Even Yiannopoulos may now be reconsidering whether it should have limits. His comments on pedophilia during a live-streamed conversation that mirrored the same comments he made while being a guest on the Joe Rogan podcast led to his book deal being revoked, his speaker spot at the Conservative Political Action Conference canceled and his resignation from Breitbart.

In the most ironic twist, it seems that “censorship” from the Right has hindered most Yiannopoulos’s career. He pushed the boundaries to his left, without ever considering the floor was falling from his right. “Free speech” isn’t a conservative position—they just have their own position on it.

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