And it raises a thorny question for those who believe that free speech should trump all else: Should public institutions be spending taxpayer money allocated for higher education on speakers who aren’t there for teaching and learning?
I’m intimately familiar with the right-wing tactic of framing anything less than free speech absolutism as “against free speech,” in part because I practiced this tactic as a conservative college student. It’s easy to declare that if low-value speakers like Mr. Yiannopoulos want a campus platform, it’s censorship if a school doesn’t give them one. But as we are seeing with Berkeley, the reality is that “free speech on campus” is not resource-neutral.
Indeed, in an effort to make sure Free Speech Week could go on, Janet Napolitano, the president of University of California, even offered to chip in at least $300,000 to help with security. “It’s a cost that the university is bearing to protect the speakers but also to protect the value of free speech,” she said.
That’s a bold statement from Ms. Napolitano, as security concerns about Mr. Yiannopoulos’s event resulted in the cancellation of a previously scheduled talk by Anna Tsing, a leading anthropologist.
I doubt Ms. Tsing’s anthropology lecture would have cost Berkeley and the University of California system anywhere near $1 million. And I suspect that if Ms. Tsing were sharing the campus with a conservative like Yuval Levin or Walter Williams on the same day, neither speech would have to be canceled. Which is why spending seven figures’ worth of student fees and taxpayer money to host Mr. Yiannopoulos is less about defending free speech than it is about supporting provocation for its own sake.
Undoubtedly, left-wing “antifa” groups have contributed to the security risks and costs at Berkeley, taking the bait that speakers like Mr. Yiannopoulos lay out and battling far-right militia groups who show up looking for a fight. But we should keep in mind, as the historian Mark Bray points out, that antifa groups form specifically to counter white supremacist and Nazi violence, having done so from the days of Hitler and Mussolini. Antifa groups are a symptom, not a cause, of the threat of white supremacist violence.
For the most part, both sides have little to do with college students who are, by and large, angry to see their campus overrun by outsiders.
Universities have a duty to keep campuses safe,…