Provocateurs’ hateful speech has no place on campus

The protection of free speech on campus should not apply to hate speech

Ana+Pietrewicz+%2F+Daily+Collegian+

Ana Pietrewicz / Daily Collegian

By Tegan Oliver, Collegian Columnist

On Wednesday, Milo Yiannopoulos will speak at the Pennsylvania State University, invited by a free speech-focused student group called Uncensored America. Yiannopoulos is a British alt-right political commentator. He worked as an editor for Breitbart News, a far-right news commentary site, though he resigned after controversy sparked over his comments on pedophilia. He has since been banned from both Twitter and Facebook for inciting harassment and is known for his inflammatory remarks surrounding sexuality, feminism and political correctness.

Yiannopoulos claims to be “ex-gay” and advocates for conversion therapy, a subject he plans to discuss at Wednesday’s event on Penn State’s campus. He is expected to open a conversion therapy facility in Florida. The situation is exacerbated by Yiannopoulos’s latest harmful tagline, “Pray the Gay Away,” which appears in bold letters on posters advertising the event around the Penn State campus.

University leaders at Penn State released a statement last Monday condemning Yiannopoulos, his past claims and his tour. However, as they explained, they cannot stop Uncensored America from sponsoring Yiannopoulos because of the students’ — and Yiannopoulos’s — constitutional rights under the First Amendment. A student-led petition asking Penn State to take action to stop the event garnered more than 10,600 signatures as of Saturday.

Free speech on college campuses is a long-debated issue with many nuances and legal implications. Two major cases have set lasting precedent regarding the issue.

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District was one of the first – and remains the seminal – cases on students’ free speech rights. In this 1969 case, several students were suspended for wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students, finding that the school had no evidence that the armbands presented a significant disruption to school activities, that students had free speech rights while in school and that the school targeted speech by only banning one symbol. This precedent has made it difficult for universities to stop a student-invited speaker while remaining within their constitutional boundaries.

In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court set a two-pronged test for when schools can limit speech: if it is “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and if it is “likely to incite or produce such action.” This precedent created space for universities to deny student-invited speakers under very specific circumstances.

Our understanding of “fighting words,” i.e., words that inherently “inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace,” has changed over time. The definition of fighting words serves as one of the most significant limits on free speech to date. Today, hate speech often constitutes fighting words. Universities have a responsibility to intervene in hate speech occurring on campus and to act in the best interest of their students.

Penn State is not the first university to struggle with navigating a student group invitation for Yiannopoulos. He spoke at the University of Massachusetts in 2016 alongside author Christina Hoff Sommers and Youtuber Steven Crowder at an event titled “The Triggering: Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?” The event was sponsored by UMass College Republicans and attended by both supporters and protestors of the conservative panel. Yiannopoulos opened at the event with, “Feminism is cancer. Thank you very much.”

At other universities where Yiannopoulos has spoken, protests have turned violent. In 2019, Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at the University of California Berkeley. On the day he was supposed to speak, nearly 1,500 people protested Yiannopoulos’s presence, with some knocking down police barricades, smashing windows, throwing rocks, fireworks and incendiary devices. The University cancelled the event in the interest of campus safety but condemned the violence and reiterated its commitment to the protection of free speech rights.

Provocateurs like Yiannopoulos have little to no genuine interest in promoting free speech, however. They are merely interested in attention and profit. Student groups who tout noble causes, like protecting free speech, are exploited by provocateurs for their audience and position in campus life.

It is easy to suggest limits on free speech where it is convenient for one’s opinion. However, no hate speech is free speech, and thus no hate speech is subject to protections under the First Amendment. Yiannopoulos’s words are more than “controversial,” they are hateful, harmful and violent in their advocacy for conversion therapy and pedophilia, as well as in their denouncement of humanity. They are “fighting words” with no place on a college campus, where authentic promotion of free speech should thrive.

Tegan Oliver can be reached at [email protected]