Editorial: A hateful end to free speech?

Just two weeks ago, we defended Milo Yiannopoulos’ right to express his views—however provocative or politically incorrect they might be. To quote that editorial:

“We agree that anyone, especially those with views that are deemed less popular, should not be denied the ability to speak on a campus solely based on the affiliation of their speech.”

On Sunday, a video resurfaced of Yiannopoulos from 2016, in which he condoned sexual relations between adults and children; in other words, statutory rape.

The comments themselves are repulsive, but not surprising: this is what Yiannopoulos does, and his opinions on Muslims and immigrants, homosexual and transgender rights and feminism are well documented. Yiannopoulos thrives on the attention that is derived from the comments themselves, as well as any attempts to censor these expressions of free speech.

Perhaps what is more surprising is the swift reaction to Yiannopoulos’ comments. Yiannopoulos was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), but the conference organizers revoked his speaking slot on Monday, calling the comments “disturbing” and his apology “insufficient.” Additionally, Simon & Schuster, which was set to publish Yiannopoulos’ book Dangerous, announced that it had canceled the publication, even though the company has repeatedly defended past comments. Then, on Tuesday, Yiannopoulos announced he was resigning from his post as senior editor at Breitbart News.

After five years of provocative statements beginning with his time at The Kernel, it appears that Yiannopoulos may have finally crossed the line. The question now becomes: why this comment? Yiannopoulos’ fame was entirely based on his vitriolic hate speech, ripe for critique and to sway public opinion.

Determining why these comments triggered a ‘morality alarm’ is challenging as it forces us to make uncomfortable decisions about what is intolerable; Were his comments regarding sexual relationships with boys worse than his public shaming of a transgender student? Just this past summer, he harassed actress Leslie Jones on Twitter, and was permanently banned as a result. Even in the light of those incidents, CPAC and Simon & Schuster supported him, and that is what should be most concerning.

Last week, when CPAC announced that Yiannopoulos would speak, they stated that “free speech includes hearing Milo’s important perspective.” Even without Yiannopoulos, this year’s conference includes a laundry list of speakers who will represent the conservative movement as xenophobic, racist and homophobic. Given that CPAC does not endorse “everything a speaker says or does” and that they believe attendees would be “up to the challenge” of dissecting Yiannopoulos’ message, why cancel his appearance?

This amounts to the same silencing of free speech as Yiannopoulos claimed the protests in Berkeley did.

Ultimately, the fallout from his comments serves to remind us that punishing hate speech is just as important as protecting free speech.

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