On Sunday, September 24, Milo Yiannopoulos stepped onto the University of Caifornia, Berkeley campus, sporting coiffed hair and sunglasses above a sweatshirt bearing the American flag. He made his way to Sproul Plaza, the birthplace of the 1960s Free Speech Movement. This, the first appearance in what was supposed to be a “Free Speech Week,” cost UC Berkeley an estimated $800,000 to protect Yiannopoulos, his supporters, and protesters with a security apparatus that included police officers and metal detectors.
The show itself was underwhelming. Other alt-right speakers expected to make appearances had pulled out of “Free Speech Week.” According to the Los Angeles Times, this owed largely to poor organization from Berkeley’s Campus Patriots, who had worked closely with Yiannopoulos to coordinate the event. In what had been advertised as a “Coachella of Conservatism,” Yiannopoulos delivered a 20-minute speech, snapped selfies, and left. Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof, speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, called it “the most expensive photo op in the university’s history.”
Without a riot for him to scold from the comfort of his home, Yiannopoulos looked more like a cartoon character than a commentator, as his supporters and detractors engaged the real debate around him with picket signs and largely nonviolent (albeit passionate) exchanges.
The day offered a reminder, then, for how much alt-right figures like Yiannopoulos depend upon extreme reactions from their opponents such as shutting down a talk to cast themselves as defenders of free speech. Left without these reactions, alt-right commentators can be deflated to the substance of their arguments — which, in Yiannopoulos’ case, only filled a 20-minute talk.
Standing tall over Sproul Plaza, Yiannopoulos had hoped to exploit UC Berkeley’s current reputation for censoring unpalatable views, a reputation created by the actions of both internal student and external organizations.
In April, right-wing firebrand Ann Coulter was scheduled to give a talk on immigration before conservative backers like the Young America’s Foundation withdrew their support for her event, citing threats of violence. The author of 2015’s “¡Adios, America!: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole,” Ann Coulter now became a beacon for the lofty ideal of free speech: “I’m so sorry for free speech [being] crushed by thugs,” she tweeted (this is, of course, the same Ann Coulter who called on Colin Kaepernick to “go to another country” after he kneeled during the national anthem).
Despite the often questionable résumés of these free speech defenders, keeping them from talking makes their work too easy. It is better to debate or to at least allow debate for opposing views, however personally offensive they may be. The alternative is to let them go unquestioned and be amplified under a banner of free speech, which often offers more high ground than the speakers’ actual views do.