Yet again, the Berkeley College Republicans invited a Nazi-aligned, immigrant-bashing, Muslim-hating, white, blonde conservative to speak at their campus. Yet again, the bigot was met with protests. Yet again, the protests resulted in the bigot canceling their appearance. And yet again, commentators from across the political spectrum are accusing liberal students of censorship, of stamping out “free speech,” and so on, and so on.
The speaker this time was Ann Coulter, a right-wing provocateur who actively courts neo-Nazis and advocated for the mass slaughter of Muslims as revenge for 9/11, among other things. Like Milo Yiannopoulos, the recently fallen star of the alt-right, Coulter and her words are not only inflammatory, but also dangerous. And that’s what should be at this heart of this “free speech” discussion.
Political commentators – who are, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly white – always discuss “free speech” on college campuses in vague ideological terms. The argument is that even hateful bigots should be granted platforms as college speakers because free speech is an inalienable right. Supposedly, liberal protestors are being close-minded by trying to prevent hateful bigots from speaking. This, apparently, is censorship.
The funny thing is that these discussions only pop up in very specific cases – namely, protests of a conservative speaker by liberals concerned about bigoted and hateful rhetoric. But what about Fordham preventing the formation of a Students for Justice in Palestine group on campus? What about GOP lawmakers trying to criminalize protest altogether? What about police militarization and the surveillance state silencing people, oftentimes through violent means? Those things don’t become national headlines, they don’t receive hours upon hours of debate from conservatives and liberals alike, and why? Because white America doesn’t truly care about protecting hate speech; it cares about protecting its right to say whatever it wants, whenever it wants, wherever it wants, without any consequences whatsoever.
Let’s go back to earlier this year, when Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at Berkeley by the Berkeley College Republicans, who seem to have a real fetish for neo-Nazis. Peaceful protests were invaded by anti-fascist activists who ended up throwing bricks and starting fires, causing Yiannopoulos to cancel his appearance. The media immediately went into an uproar about how liberals were censoring Yiannopoulos, but they forgot to truly examine why students protested him. It is not simply because he is a bigot; it is because giving a platform to his bigotry would put marginalized students in danger.
Yiannopoulos had previously used his college tour to out trans students, putting them at risk of violence and even forcing one to leave their school entirely out of fear. He planned to use his Berkeley appearance to out undocumented students, who are in even more danger now that the Trump regime has vastly expanded the powers of ICE. But all of this, the very real and immediate threat to marginalized students posed by Yiannopoulos’ hateful rhetoric, went ignored by the media in favor of a conversation of a distorted understanding of free speech. And the same is happening with Coulter, whose appearance was canceled due to fear of violence, despite intense police militarization against protestors.
This may all be theoretical to commentators, but it’s very real to the marginalized folks living in the United States who face discrimination, violence, imprisonment, and deportation.
Furthermore, denying bigots the right to endanger marginalized folks a platform is by no means censorship. Bigots already have endless platforms through which to spew their hatred. Though “safe spaces” are an easy target for critics of campus progressivism, bigots have a safe space in society. Even if they receive backlash for their words, the media will always come to their defense with the “free speech” argument, no matter how many marginalized folks are endangered by “free speech.” And with Donald Trump, the epitome of the white backlash to marginalized folks simply wanting white folks to stop being racist, in the Oval Office, this problem has been normalized to a degree we’ve never seen before in modern American society.
So maybe before you jump to defend the right of neo-Nazis to speak at college campuses, refocus the discussion on the people whose rights are actually at stake here: the marginalized. Yes, bigots deserve to be able to spew their bigotry, but it is our right to reject their bigotry, including by preventing them from using our platforms to further hurt the most vulnerable in our society.
Free speech isn’t free when marginalized folks have to pay the price.