Last Thursday, students at the University of California at Berkeley protested against a scheduled speech by Milo Yiannopoulus.
Milo is a right-wing writer for the populist Breitbart News, and he has made a career out of provoking conflict. He thrives on it. Most recently he incited online abuse of the actress Leslie Jones. He has also been touring the country to promote his latest book.
Berkeley students protested to object to him being given a platform. This inspired a debate on social media about freedom of speech. Some people thought that freedom of speech meant that anyone has the right to say anything in public. Other people thought that there were limits to free speech.
So, I looked it up and, in less than thirty seconds, I found that there are several restrictions on free speech in the US. Notable for the Berkeley students and Milo are the limitations on Fighting Words and Offensive Speech. (You can find the details yourself on Wikipedia.)
Anyway, it turned out that Milo did not actually have to say anything. His reputation and earlier words preceded him and caused a riot. Well, they actually caused two things: a peaceful demonstration and a riot. The two events seem to have been provoked by different organizers, but since they happened in the same city at the same time the two have been conflated.
The rioters damaged property to a huge ($100,000) extent. The protesters made a lot of noise and stopped traffic. The rioters wore paramilitary-style clothes and covered their faces. The protesters wore regular clothes and showed their faces.
So, then I wondered where the rioters came from. They may have sprung spontaneously from the general public and to have been organized through social media. Or, they may have been provoked.
No-one knows for sure where the rioters came from, but Robert Reich (who was at the event and saw them) has speculated that they came from a group indirectly associated with Breitbart News.
The next day, Milo’s book was suddenly among the best sellers on Amazon. Surprise, surprise. He didn’t have to make a speech at all. He had all the publicity he needed.
Because of the fires and property damage, some people argued that “The left is afraid of free speech.” No, I don’t think that’s it. I think the right knows that a riot creates a lot of negative attention, and when you are selling a book, all publicity is good publicity.
Non-violent demonstrators, though, get tarred with the same brush. In the long run, peaceful protest has much more effect than violence because it cannot be so easily dismissed. As John Lennon once said:
“When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.”
Perhaps, instead of the left being afraid of free speech, the right is showing that it is afraid of non-violent resistance and humor.