Free speech is a cornerstone of our democracy, and a college education must herald free speech by exposing students to new ideas that challenge their own convictions. A few weeks ago, a “Free Speech Week” was cancelled at Berkley University amidst logistical confusion. The event, organized by a young Conservative student group, was headlined by conservative provocateurs Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, and Steve Bannon. Despite the event falling apart, protests ensued, highlighting the polarization of political views on campus and a burgeoning movement against provocation disguised as free speech.
Protest and highly-passionate debate have been commonplace on campuses across the country as controversial right-wing figures attempt to jockey around college campuses. Just recently, Harvard students protested the controversial scholar Charles Murray when he spoke on campus, and earlier this year, Milo’s speaking event at UCLA was canceled due to public safety concerns. Our own Fordham College Republicans recently decided to join the parade by inviting political operative Roger Stone. The Fordham College Republicans themselves had difficulty obtaining the security fees necessary to host Stone, who is highly implicated in the federal investigation exploring the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia; has been banned at different times from appearing on CNN and MSNBC for his derogatory comments; and is often featured on InfoWars – a dangerous conspiratorial website that claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a government hoax.
Some conservatives posit that the difficulty they face in securing controversial speakers is tantamount to an excoriation of their Constitutional right of free speech and expression. The argument from the right emphasizes the importance of civil discourse and engaging with diverse opinions, even when that engagement becomes uncomfortable. These critics are probably correct. Democracy is not supposed to be easy: it forces us to reckon with people and opinions with which we fundamentally disagree. It takes courage to live in a democracy.
But, at the same time, while suppression may obfuscate the core tenets of democracy, unabashedly divisive figures obscure the principles upon which they ostensibly stand. It is delusional to argue that Milo, Ann Coulter, and even Roger Stone represent a legitimate intellectual authority worth engaging with. Milo curtly calls feminism a cancer and Black Lives Matter a hate group, among a laundry list of other scathing and derogatory remarks. Milo journeys to college campuses to sew division, not to foster civil discourse or to endorse an intellectually-rooted Conservatism that harkens back to Conservative giants like William F. Buckley and Irving Kristol. Milo ransacks universities in order to “trigger,” what he terms, “snowflakes.” These Conservative provocateurs stand for nothing, but instead stand against everything with a progressive stamp.
Unfortunately, the embracement of these figures by young Conservative groups on college campuses is damaging our democracy and is, ironically, deteriorating the worth and reputation of the party these young conservatives purportedly support. It was disappointing seeing Milo’s book, “Dangerous,” headlining the Fordham College Republicans table at the club fair.
It is evident – and even more so after the invitation of Roger Stone – that the Fordham College Republicans are not trying to talk through differences of opinion on campus but instead desire to create them. It is difficult to believe that a group that trumpets someone who likens rape culture to Harry Potter as a fantasy or invites someone to campus who proudly professes to having no moral or ethical compass wants to foster civil discourse. It seems much more likely, and in line with other young conservative groups across our country, that the invitation of Roger Stone was meant to spark division and anger amongst their own peers. The Fordham College Republicans were successful in driving us farther apart: they instigated a fight, evidenced by the neverending back-and-forth shouting match that enfolded during the Roger Stone speaking event. Free speech was not celebrated; a mockery was made of free speech.
For the sake of our democracy these ignorant and divisive stunts masquerading as a Constitutional liberty must stop. We must be willing to engage with diverse opinions, but it is pertinent that we demand to take this task seriously and legitimately strive to create unity through difficult dialogue as opposed to fermenting division through sophomoric stunts.