When Conservative College Students Cancel Campus Speeches

Should they or shouldn’t they? At UCLA, conservative students invited Milo Yiannopoulos to campus. A conservative professor advised them against it. His reasons for doing so highlight another fundamental question buried beneath our campus-free-speech shouting match.

milo yiannopolous

A “legitimate” conservative? Or just a “despicable asshole”?

Like everyone else, we at ILYBYGTH have been pondering questions of campus free speech lately. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH will recall, last week we wondered if arch-creationist Ken Ham could legitimately be disinvited from an Oklahoma university. Then we wondered if conservative student groups could be forced to accept leaders who don’t agree with them.

The issues from UCLA might seem vastly different at first. The College Republicans had issued a speaking invitation to right-wing bomb-thrower Milo. He planned to talk on the topic, “Ten Things I Hate About Mexico.” In an open letter published at Weekly Standard, one of their few conservative faculty mentors, Gabriel Rossman, advised them to cancel the invitation, for conservative reasons. And they did.

Why?

Professor Rossman condemned Milo as nothing but—using the words of Charles Murray—“a despicable asshole.” If UCLA conservatives were really dedicated to promoting conservative ideas and principles, inviting Milo was a bad idea. As Rossman put it,

You need to ask yourselves, what is your goal as an organization? If you’re in it for the lulz and just want to see the world burn, then I guess go ahead and bring in a vapid provocateur.

But if your mission is to spread conservative ideas, you should recognize that hosting Yiannopoulos will only render your organization and our ideas toxic.

Prof. Rossman’s advice—which the students heeded—raises another central underlying question in our debates over campus free speech. Last week in these pages, Agellius noted that the real question was not just creationism or homosexuality or nationalism. The real question, he wrote, was this:

It’s all about who gets to define “discrimination” isn’t it?

If Ken Ham’s version of Christianity is considered ipso facto discriminatory, then it makes some sense that he wouldn’t be invited to speak at a school dedicated to fighting against anti-homosexual discrimination. But if it isn’t, then it doesn’t.

Prof. Rossman’s advice raises a related question. He encourages UCLA’s conservative students to invite provocative conservative speakers. He lauded the decision to bring “War on Cops” author Heather MacDonald to campus. As he explained,

I can understand why some people were offended by Heather Mac Donald’s ideas when she spoke on campus last year. But reasonable people can disagree about whether all Americans, and especially African Americans, on net benefit from aggressive policing. More to the point, Mac Donald expresses her pro-police position without animus, so sponsoring her talk was an entirely legitimate and honorable thing to do.

Milo is different, Rossman thinks. His goal is only to push leftist students into vulgar displays of coercive thuggery. Rossman’s against it; against the entire “epater les SJWs performance art model” that Milo represents. [Editor’s note: SJW = “Social Justice Warrior.”]

We might say that Professor Rossman considered some so-called conservative speakers beyond the pale of legitimacy. Did College Republicans have the right to invite him? Rossman says yes. But was it good conservative strategy to do so? Rossman says no.

The central question, though, is not about Milo or Ken Ham or any single speaking invitation. The central question, it seems to me—following Agellius—is this: Who decides what “extremism” and “legitimacy” are?

Is it “illegitimate” to oppose same-sex marriage? The Oklahoma student protesters said yes. Ken Ham says no.

Is it “extreme” to deride Mexico? To try to provoke UCLA students into wilder and wilder displays of speech-blocking ferocity? Professor Rossman says yes. The College Republicans, apparently, agreed.

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4 Comments

  1. To me this is different from the Oklahoma situation. Here, it’s just one group deciding to invite someone, and then the same group being persuaded to change its mind by someone friendly to the group. They didn’t decide that his ideas were beyond the pale of legitimacy and therefore forbidden to be spoken publicly on campus, only that his speaking was liable to be counter-productive to their own mission (which, I assume, is to spread conservative ideas through persuasion).

    Reply
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