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Berkeley, Middlebury, Glasgow, and the Death of Free Speech at University

It seems safe to say that just about the entire western world is sick and tired of hearing about Milo Yiannopoulos. The alt-right provocateur has been making waves for years with his controversial opinions, mean-spirited remarks, and brazen endorsement of practices such as pederasty. The Left hates him, and the traditional Right is uncomfortable even having to talk about him, let alone defend him. He is, however, at the extremely significant epicentre of an extremely significant development in modern society: the death of free speech at universities in both the United States and the United Kingdom. This trend has been at work in Scotland for years now, but it has taken Milo Yiannopoulos to bring it to centre stage.

Last month, the students of the University of Glasgow, one of Scotland’s four ancient universities, nominated Milo as a candidate for the position of Rector. Negative reaction was swift and strident. The university’s Feminist Society issued a statement calling for a boycott of the election unless Milo was removed from the ballot. An academic interviewed by The National claimed that Milo’s nomination was the result of student drunkenness. Though Glasgow is no stranger to controversial Rectors (Edward Snowden was the most recent holder of the title) and despite the fact that the nomination proceeded via an above-board democratic process, the university has seriously considered banning Milo from the ticket. All students may have the right to express their political opinion in theory, but in practice, as the same academic points out, if Milo visits the campus ‘there’ll be riots.’ The last thing we want is for the university to go up in flames.’ Again, in theory, the threat of violence should never be allowed to suppress free speech, as any bonafide progressive liberal will tell you, but Glasgow must factor in examples such as that of the University of California, Berkeley.

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Earlier this year, a Republican student group at Berkeley invited Milo to speak on campus. Despite a protest campaign of faculty letter-writing and student social media activism, school administrators allowed the talk to be held, citing the right of any student group to invite relevant speakers. After all, they reasoned, Berkeley has been the proud torchbearer of the free speech movement since the 1960s, when students demonstrated on campus for the right to express countercultural and Communist opinions. Times, however, have changed. Upon arriving on campus, Milo was met, not unexpectedly, by a group of about 1500 peaceful protesters. Chanting and waving signs harmlessly, the students legitimately expressed their right to be heard in opposition to Milo’s message. After dark, however, things took a violent turn. Most of the crowd had dispersed by that point, but a core of about 150 people, dressed all in black, were prepared to take extraordinary measures to silence Milo. Armed with clubs and shields, they rampaged through the campus streets, starting fires and smashing windows. Private property was looted or destroyed, and Molotov cocktails were used in abundance. Footage from the riot and the following days showed a female Trump supporter being viciously pepper-sprayed as she was being interviewed by a local television station, and another Trump supporter lying unconscious on the ground while being beaten with a shovel. As bullies and thugs typically do, the rioters achieved their objective. To forestall further violence, the university, once famed for its heroic defence of freedom of expression on campus, cancelled the talk.

More recently, free speech was handed another violent blow in the sleepy college town of Middlebury, Vermont. There, a conservative student group at Middlebury College invited Charles Murray to give a talk on his new book concerning, ironically, cultural division in America. Murray, the author of ‘The Bell Curve’ in 1994, is controversial, especially on the Left, because of his argument that socioeconomic results are more closely linked to intelligence than to social factors. The school approved the event and the political science department even co-sponsored it in order to teach students to engage with controversial ideas. As expected, the event provoked a significant protest outside the venue and as the talk began, protesters filed inside. After simply turning their backs on him in protest, the students began to chant and scream simply to drown out Murray’s lecture. Murray stood in silence for a while in the face of this incoherent rage, and then was escorted to another location by a Middlebury professor, where they planned to continue the event as a live-streamed debate/interview for those who genuinely wanted to hear. Protesters, in a desperate attempt to prevent any word of Murray’s from being heard, found the new location, banged violently on the walls and doors for the duration of the talk, and even pulled a fire alarm to literally drown out the debate. When the event finally concluded, Murray and some of the professors involved were scheduled to meet some students for dinner at a campus restaurant. However, as they tried to leave the building and reach their car, a mob of about twenty students blocked their path. As they attempted to pass through, flanked by hired security guards, the students physically assaulted the group and the exit transformed into a running battle. At one point, Professor Allison Stanger, who had been debating Murray from the opposing perspective, had her hair grabbed and her head shoved, causing nerve damage. She said later, ‘I feared for my life.’ Upon reaching the car, the group was able to drive to the restaurant, before discovering that the mob had learned of their location and was in hot pursuit. Eventually, they were forced to leave campus entirely and eat several miles away to avoid the violence.

These horror stories took place in a supposedly free country and to think that things will be different in the UK is simply folly. One need look no further than St. Andrews itself to see the threats to free speech at university. The recently formed Republicans Overseas group was advised by the Students’ Association to consider hiring private security for a recent talk by a speaker supporting the state of Israel, because of the threat of violence at similar events in the past. St. Andrews’ pro-life society, Students For Life, has faced constant protest, social media vitriol, and calls for its banning. Other universities are no different, especially on the abortion issue. A debate about ‘abortion culture’ was shut down at the University of Oxford in 2014 when protesters threatened to use noisemakers and speakers to drown out the speakers. Last year, the University of Strathclyde Students’ Association banned a student pro-life group from affiliating as an official society on the grounds that ‘allowing an anti-choice group to form would be a barrier to freedom…’ The environment for censorship is fertile at British universities and needs only the proper seeds for it to blossom into illiberal oppression.

The University of Glasgow would do well to consider the reasons universities were set up in the first place. Back in the 1150s, the University of Bologna adopted a charter guaranteeing the right of any scholar to safe and unhindered passage, no matter his ideas or intentions. This notion was radical for a time when foreign scholars or scholars outside the mainstream were routinely subject to reprisals, and universities have been synonymous with freedom of expression ever since. In the 21st century, the face of fascism is not a bleached blonde Brit with a flair for the dramatic, nor is it a sneering spray-tanned politician; rather, it is a self-righteous twenty-something clad all in black, a coward with a mask and a mob, who attempts to suppress with Molotov cocktails what he cannot defeat with his own ideas. If liberalism, human rights, and democratic government are to survive, this spectre must be resisted and the free and peaceful exchange of ideas allowed to flourish.

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