When the free speech movement sends their people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing conspiracy theories. They’re bringing pedophiles. They’re rape apologists. And some, I assume, are good people? No, not even that.
Milo Yiannopoulos is back again. The self-styled provocateur has made some minor headlines recently for his involvement with the doomed Free Speech Week that was planned for Berkeley. Organized by a right-wing campus group, it was meant to be a star-studded parade of conservatives and nationalists including the likes of Steve Bannon and Ann Coulter. The problem? Most of the promised speakers never materialized, either due to lack of confirmation in the first place, or a last-minute decision to back out.
Milo, never one to quit while he’s ahead, has decided to make an appearance anyway. He will be flanked by the handful of guest speakers who have opted to stick around; there is Mike Cernovich, a blogger and Twitter pundit whose most notable contribution to popular discourse has been his repeated unfounded claims that John Podesta, former manager of the 2016 Clinton campaign, was involved in a national child trafficking ring; there is Pamela Geller, whose staunch opposition to the inevitable Islamic takeover of America’s institutions is surpassed in intensity only by her love of damaging hyperbole; and there is, of course, Milo himself, the perennial attention-seeker whose bare defense of pederasty cost him a book deal and, in a more reasonable political climate, would have permanently ended his career.
The modern free speech movement was initially conceived on the college campus, and it is now on college campuses that it has finally transitioned from an overtly leftist movement to an overtly rightist cause. The campus has become inseparable from the ongoing national debate over free speech, and Milo has made an image for himself—deserved or otherwise—as the standard bearer of free speech on campuses, and by extension, across the nation. Even when he behaves in the most unconservative of ways, expounding the benefits of statutory rape, he manages to desperately claw his way back into some semblance of a spotlight. He does this with the endorsement of conservative groups at campuses across the country.
Advocates of free speech on college campuses are allying themselves with a champion who is nothing but damaging to their cause. It was in August that the National Review, America’s leading publication of the conservative intelligentsia, became partially cognizant of the fact that its views were now at odds with countless campus conservatives. In a piece titled “Campus Conservatives Gave the Alt-Right a Platform,” Elliot Kaufman criticized the cynical calculus employed by the student organizations that extended invitations to Milo based on a belief that the most effective way of spreading their traditionally unpopular message was to draw fire and condemnation from the left. While agitating for free speech is a worthy endeavor, Kaufman argues, it is not worth selling one’s soul to the most odious elements of reactionary politics. Indeed, now that Milo has been thoroughly disgraced by the standards of both left and right, this calculus has only grown more cynical.
When Milton Friedman descended on college campuses in the late 1970’s to articulate a defense of libertarianism, he included in his theses a forceful argument for freedom of speech that was both consistent with his general belief in freedom and fundamentally grounded in social justice. The Nobel Prize-winning economist described a stagnant Soviet Union terrified of unfiltered truths becoming popularly known and cast its citizens as a politically oppressed people. He popularized what has become one of the most prolific and compelling defenses of free speech beyond simple legal protections, that of the necessity of a free marketplace of ideas.
Friedman is no longer the face of a movement that has been commandeered by Yiannopoulos and Cernovich. None of them have demonstrated any desire to provide a defense of free speech on the basis of social good. Indeed, it is hard to believe that they care for the freedom at all. Cernovich caused a stir in 2014 when he tweeted “Who cares about breast cancer and rape? Not me.” Yiannopoulos advocated for greater government regulation of the “fake news” press during a campus speech in 2016. These are not the words of men who should tell anyone with a straight face that speech should be free, dialogue should be open, and that differences should be resolved through rational debate. They belong to men who are hopelessly lost in partisanship and ideology, and willing to use and abuse the issue of free speech in order to obtain platforms for their odious ideas.
If the right is to make any progress on free speech it must rid itself of these parasitic figures. If the free speech movement continues to steep itself in ideology and in people who see its namesake as a means to an end and not as its own noble goal, it is doomed to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Worse yet, the continued association of free speech with such gauzy sophists will cause lasting damage to an institution fated to keep declining long after Milo and his ilk are gone.
It is past time for college conservatives to wise up. The enemy of your enemy is not your friend.
John Jiang is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.