Thursday, February 2, 2017

On Milo Yiannopoulos and Free Speech and Power


I've seen a few people taking devil's advocate positions with regards to the UC Berkeley protests of Milo Yiannopoulos and the idea that shutting down a speaking engagement is infringing on or stifling free speech. I heard this same argument when activists were shutting down Donald Trump campaign events last year as well. So I wanted to respond to those concerns with a quick and dirty analysis of the power dynamics inherent in the concept of free speech.

So here's the thing: even if you think everyone should have free speech regardless of the ideas they espouse (including those that incite hatred and violence, which I would argue should not be tolerated, but in any case), someone being given a massive public platform to spread their ideas has a distinctly inordinate amount of "free speech" compared to others who don't have that platform. Taking away that platform through direct action isn't infringing on their free speech, it's just taking away that platform. They're still free to say whatever they want, they just don't have that particular audience at that particular time anymore.

And, by the way, realistically, the person in question probably still has an audience in the sense of having a fanbase (Milo himself has a book deal with one of the most prominent book publishers for crying out loud--his free speech is anything but infringed upon). Shutting down a speaking engagement like this is the most effective way that the collective power of people without such a platform can express their free speech in a way that reaches anywhere near as many people as people like Milo are able to reach on a daily basis.

If we're going to have a legitimate discussion about free speech then we need to include an analysis of the power dynamics of speech. One of the most common arguments against the idea that "money = speech" (which, in large part, forms the foundation of the Citizens United decision) is that if some people have VASTLY more "speech" (money) than others, then how can speech be free? Economic and institutional power carries with it a wealth of "speech"--i.e. a wealth of opportunity and ability to make your voice heard by an inordinate number of people. Denying those people a fraction of that wealth of "speech" is not "stifling free speech." It's attempting to level the playing field by the only means available--and it still doesn't come CLOSE to leveling the playing field. The protesters in Berkeley weren't "stifling" Milo's free speech. They were exercising theirs.

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