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Story highlights

Jeffrey Herbst and Mitch Gelman: Freedom of speech applies to those whose rhetoric many find distasteful

Attempts to silence Milo Yiannopoulos gave he and his allies a megaphone that otherwise would not have existed, they say

Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Herbst is president and CEO of the Newseum and formerly president of Colgate University. Mitch Gelman is chief technology officer at the Newseum. The views expressed are their own.

(CNN) —  

Milo Yiannopoulos, an editor at Breitbart, has single-handedly caused another free speech crisis on campus. Yiannopoulos – who was permanently banned from Twitter in July for his racist trolling – has achieved a level of fame (infamy) for his indictments of political correctness, criticism of feminism (he calls it a “cancer”), and his comparison of the head of Planned Parenthood to “Hitler.”

As part of his “Dangerous Faggot” tour, Yiannopoulos is visiting college campuses across the country. Wednesday night, his talk at the University of California, Berkeley, the home of the free speech movement in the 1960s, was canceled because of protesters brandishing bricks and setting fires. His talks have also been canceled at universities including North Dakota State University, Iowa State University, the University of Maryland, Florida Atlantic University and the University of California, Davis.

Elsewhere, he has been allowed to talk, often in the face of protesters who wanted to shut him down.

Jeffrey Herbst
PHOTO: Newseum
Jeffrey Herbst

But the protesters, whose actions led to the cancellation of his talk at Berkeley and elsewhere, have done a disservice to the First Amendment.

As numerous college presidents have noted while defending their decisions to allow him to speak in the face of protests, freedom of speech applies to those whose rhetoric many find distasteful. Indeed, hate speech, except under very narrow exceptions – such as direct encouragement to others to immediately commit violence – is protected speech in the United States.

The First Amendment is truly tested not when mainstream speech is routinely expressed, but when those at the margin seek to express their views. These days, we are often failing that test.

Mitch Gelman
PHOTO: Newseum
Mitch Gelman

The fact that the violence at Berkeley caused windows to be broken at the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union is a vivid and sad symbol of how much respect for the First Amendment has declined in the United States. Part of King’s genius was the realization that the five freedoms of the First Amendment provided the civil rights movement with the avenue to attempt to achieve full equality in our country.

That a building named for the great orator has been vandalized to prevent speech should be an indication that we have a serious problem on some college campuses – and across the country.

In a hyper politicized country, it may not matter to a protester, convinced of the absolute evil of Yiannopoulos, that violating the very precepts that allow their campuses to function – and to be the envy of the world – is wrong. What should matter to them is that they are acting exactly according to Yiannopoulos’s playbook. Although he decries the culture of victimhood, being a victim is likely exactly what Yiannopoulos wants.

Yiannopoulos, who happens to have a book about to be published, is on top of the news coverage, trending on Google and orders of advanced copies of his book are making it one of the top sellers on Amazon.

Why not let Yiannopoulos talk? The attempts to silence him actually gave him and his allies a megaphone that otherwise would not have existed. For every scowl cast on Yiannopoulos’s promotion of the “Privilege Grant,” which offers stipends to help pay for the education of white males attending college, he no doubt responds with a gleeful smirk.

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Indeed, President Donald Trump was quick to tweet in favor of Yiannopoulos, while criticizing Berkeley. Perhaps it does not matter to the protesters, but they have created a situation where President Trump is a stronger proponent of the First Amendment than many who claim that he is a danger to society. As a result, they are hurting no one’s cause but their own.

There is always a next act, and many are watching the “Dangerous Faggot” tour to learn how best to get clicks, page hits and a little fame in our society. What they will learn is that outrageous rhetoric from the margins is rewarded with the kind of attention that many crave.

It would be better to let Yiannopoulos speak, calmly explain why he should not be listened to, and watch as his fame dims. The power to starve him and those like him of the oxygen of outrage is far more powerful, and keeping with our foundational rights, than the stones thrown at Berkeley.