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Free Speech, Both Ways

West Virginia University defends right of Breitbart's Milo Yiannopoulos to speak, but also right of students and faculty members to answer back when he attacked a professor who advocates for gay and minority students.

December 5, 2016
 

Milo Yiannopoulos has for months now been a source of controversy on campuses. The Breitbart editor goes beyond criticizing his targets -- liberals, feminists, minority and gay student groups (although he is gay). He mocks them with language that leads many to feel personally attacked and demeaned.

A number of colleges and universities have called off his appearances, citing a range of issues, from the content of his talks to the need for extra security. Some have said that he could appear only if higher than normal fees are charged for security. These responses have drawn criticism not only from Yiannopoulos but from advocates for free expression who don't necessarily agree with Yiannopoulos. Many have argued that public universities covered by the First Amendment and private institutions committed to its principles have no choice but to permit him to speak.

West Virginia University didn't bar him. When the university's Republican student group invited Yiannopoulos to speak, which he did on Thursday, the university did not equivocate on his right to speak. But when Yiannopoulos singled out a professor with personal, mocking criticism, students -- with the support of President E. Gordon Gee -- took to social media to defend the professor.

Gee sent a message to the campus Friday in which he said that he understood the anger of many that Yiannopoulos had been invited and permitted to speak on campus. But Gee said that there was no responsible choice but to let the lecture take place.

"I will always support the decision to bring a speaker to campus and our community -- no matter how controversial. We never want to censor a person’s right to free speech. It is through listening to people who think differently from others that we learn about the world and discover who we really are. And I believe that is one of the most valuable experiences one can have on a college campus," Gee wrote.

But he went on to say that free speech works both ways. Support for free speech, Gee wrote, "does not mean I, as president, lose my First Amendment right to speak up and condemn what is presented. I will never support the tactics of any speaker who brings unsubstantiated and false attacks against a member of our Mountaineer family. It is one thing to share differing opinions that others may find offensive. It is another to be defamatory and target individuals. I personally condemn the tactic this speaker chose to vindictively attack one of our faculty members, Daniel Brewster."

During his talk, Yiannopoulos posted a photo of Brewster on a screen with the label "Fat Faggot." (It should be noted that Yiannopoulos refers to his campus speaking tour as the "dangerous faggot tour," and he may view "fat" as a greater insult than what is normally a slur for gay people, but he throws around the antigay slur with a different tone than when he is talking about his tour.)

In his talk, Yiannopoulos started by denigrating Brewster's discipline, using rhetoric many conservatives use about some areas of study. "Professor Brewster teaches sociology, which comes in just above gender studies in my rankings of 'burger-flipping majors' -- but not very far above," he said. "I hear he’s fond of bullying conservative students, who often find themselves compelled to leave his class midlecture. I hear he’s hosting a, and I quote, 'multicultural LGBTQ event' at this very second."

Yiannopoulos went on to say that he had heard that Brewster discourages conservative students from expressing their views or punishes them with poor grades. Brewster opted not to answer Yiannopoulos, but his students have said that there are differences of opinion aired in class all the time. What particularly upset many at West Virginia was the way Yiannopoulos kept repeating personal insults while discussing things such as Brewster's Twitter biography and photograph (seen above).

For instance, Yiannopoulos said, "Professor Fat Ass’s Twitter profile contains this quote: 'I welcome the fact that students feel safer knowing that I will be an advocate for them and that I am willing to fight for their rights and their inclusion.' Well that’s not true, is it, Professor Stuff Your Face With Froot Loops?"

Responding to Yiannopoulos's comments about Brewster, Gee said that "while the university will always be committed to creating an open forum that supports free speech, we are also strongly committed to keeping our campus and local communities inclusive and safe." Gee added that "for far too long, we have been yelling at each other instead of listening to each other. We use the First Amendment to speak language that hurts rather than heals. We use social media and anonymous emails to tear each other down instead of lifting each other up."

Gee also praised -- and participated in -- a social media campaign to defend Brewster. Using the hashtag #BecauseofBrewster, students and others wrote about the difference he had made at WVU (and elsewhere -- he is a popular speaker with college groups promoting inclusiveness). Gee noted that in the 12 hours after Yiannopoulos's talk, more than 185,000 people saw a social media post praising the professor who had been attacked.

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