By David French
Monday, February 20, 2017
To understand the core of the free-speech challenge in this country, consider the case of a hypothetical young woman named Sarah. In college, Sarah is a conservative activist. She’s pro-life, supports traditional marriage, and belongs to a Christian student club. Her free speech infuriates professors and other students, so the administration cracks down. It defunds her student club, forces her political activism into narrow, so-called free-speech zones, and reminds her to comply with the university’s tolerance policies.
What does Sarah do? She sues the school, she wins, and the school pays her attorneys’ fees. The judge expands the free-speech zone to cover the whole campus and strikes down the tolerance policy. The First Amendment wins.
Sarah graduates. A brilliant student, she gets a job at a Silicon Valley start-up and moves to California to start her new life. Just as they did in college, politics dominate her conversations, and within a week she gets into an argument with a colleague over whether Bruce Jenner is really a woman. The next morning, Sarah’s called into the HR department, given a stern warning for violating company policy, and told that if she can’t comply she’ll need to find another place to work.
What does Sarah do? She shuts her mouth or she loses her job. Her employer isn’t the government; it’s a private company with its own free-speech rights, and it expects its employees to respect its “corporate values.”
In a nutshell, this is America’s free-speech problem. The law is largely solid. Government entities that censor or silence citizens on the basis of their political, cultural, or religious viewpoint almost always lose in court. With some exceptions, the First Amendment remains robust. Yet the culture of free speech is eroding away, rapidly.
The politicization of everything has combined with increasing levels of polarization and cocooning to create an atmosphere in which private citizens are increasingly weaponizing their expression — using their social and economic power not to engage in debate but to silence dissent. Corporate bullying, social-media shaming, and relentless peer pressure combine to place a high cost on any departure from the mandated norms. Even here in Middle Tennessee, I have friends who are afraid to post about their religious views online or express disagreements during mandatory corporate-diversity seminars, lest they lose their jobs. One side speaks freely. The other side speaks not at all.
There is no government solution to this problem. The First Amendment prohibits the state from mandating openness to debate and dissent, and corporations aren’t designed to be debating societies. Nor can the government prevent (or even try to prevent) the kinds of social-media shaming campaigns and peer pressures that cause men and women to stay silent for fear of social exclusion. The solution is to persuade the powerful that free speech has value, that ideological monocultures are harmful, and that the great questions of life can’t and shouldn’t be settled through shaming, hectoring, or silencing.
It is thus singularly unfortunate that the “conservative” poster boy for free speech is Milo Yiannopoulos.
Milo, for those who don’t know, is a flamboyantly gay senior editor at Breitbart News, a provocateur who relishes leftist outrage and deliberately courts as much fury as he can. How? Please allow my friend Ben Shapiro to explain:
Jews run the media; earlier this month he characterized a Jewish BuzzFeed writer as a “a typical example of a sort of thick-as-pig shit media Jew”; he justifies anti-Semitic memes as playful trollery and pats racist sites like American Renaissance on the head; he describes himself as a “chronicler of, and occasional fellow traveler with the alt-right” while simultaneously recognizing that their “dangerously bright” intellectuals believe that “culture is inseparable from race”; back in his days going under the name Milo Wagner, he reportedly posed with his hand atop a Hitler biography, posted a Hitler meme about killing 6 million Jews, and wore an Iron Cross; last week he berated a Muslim woman in the audience of one of his speeches for wearing a hijab in the United States; his alt-right followers routinely spammed my Twitter account with anti-Semitic propaganda he tut-tutted before his banning (the amount of anti-Semitism in my feed dropped by at least 70 percent after his ban, which I opposed); he personally Tweeted a picture of a black baby at me on the day of my son’s birth, because according to the alt-right I’m a “cuck” who wants to see the races mixed; he sees the Constitution as a hackneyed remnant of the past, to be replaced by a new right he leads.
Oh, and this week recordings rocketed across Twitter that showed Milo apparently excusing pedophilia and expressing gratitude to a Catholic priest for teaching him how to perform oral sex. (Later, on Facebook, he vigorously denied that he supports pedophilia, saying he is “completely disgusted by the abuse of children.”)
Milo is currently on what he calls his “Dangerous Faggot” tour of college campuses, which has followed a now-familiar pattern: A conservative group invites him to speak, leftists on campus freak out, and he thrives on the resulting controversy, casting himself as a hero of free expression. Lately, the leftist freakouts have grown violent, culminating in a scary riot at the University of California, Berkeley.
Operating under the principle that “the enemy of my enemy must be my friend,” too many on the right have leapt to Milo’s defense, ensuring that his star just keeps rising. Every liberal conniption brings him new conservative credibility and fresh appearances on Fox News. Last week Bill Maher featured him as a defender of free speech, and – for a brief time — he had been expected to speak at the nation’s largest and arguably most important conservative gathering, CPAC. (CPAC rescinded its invitation today.)
Let’s put this plainly: If Milo’s the poster boy for free speech, then free speech will lose. He’s the perfect foil for social-justice warriors, a living symbol of everything they fight against. His very existence and prominence feed the deception that modern political correctness is the firewall against the worst forms of bigotry.
I’ve spent a career defending free speech in court, and I’ve never defended a “conservative” like Milo. His isn’t the true face of the battle for American free-speech rights. That face belongs to Barronelle Stutzman, the florist in Washington whom the Left is trying to financially ruin because she refused to use her artistic talents to celebrate a gay marriage. It belongs to Kelvin Cochran, the Atlanta fire chief who was fired for publishing and sharing with a few colleagues a book he wrote that expressed orthodox Christian views of sex and marriage.
Stutzman and Cochran demonstrate that intolerance and censorship strike not just at people on the fringe – people like Milo – but rather at the best and most reasonable citizens of these United States. They’re proof that social-justice warriors seek not equality and inclusion but control and domination.
Milo has the same free-speech rights as any other American. He can and should be able to troll to his heart’s content without fear of government censorship or private riot. But by elevating him even higher, CPAC would have made a serious mistake. CPAC’s invitation told the world that supporting conservative free speech means supporting Milo. If there’s a more effective way to vindicate the social-justice Left, I can’t imagine it.